CHICAGO—In a strong show of rank-and-file unity, close to 90% of the membership of the Chicago Teachers Union authorized the union to strike if the union’s leadership is unable to negotiate a contract with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s handpicked school board. The strike vote was conducted as the mayor has conducted a union-busting campaign against Chicago teachers.
Last year, citing budget concerns, the mayor’s school board unilaterally cancelled a negotiated 4% raise for teachers. The union countered that much of the budget shortfalls in The Chicago Public Schools are due to the city’s diversion of property tax revenues to Tax Increment Financing funds, which are largely used to give handouts to politically influential developers and major corporations. These TIF funds divert hundreds of millions of dollars from the schools, as well as parks, libraries, and the general city budget.
Past recipients of the city’s corporate welfare fund include war-profiteer Boeing (to help them move into a downtown corporate headquarters) and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, who received a generous donation from the city for the worthy cause of helping renovate the bathrooms at the stock exchange.
Adding insult to injury, the mayor, President Obama’s former chief of staff and close ally, has been blaming teachers for the poor performance of Chicago schools. Emmanuel has called for more non-union charter schools, school “turn arounds,” in which all teachers in a given school are fired, and has pushed to eliminate tenure and step increases in pay based on seniority.
Emmanuel’s school board has proposed in negotiations that teachers receive “merit” pay increases based on students test scores. Teachers and their unions have responded that the over-emphasis on test scores has resulted in teachers being forced to “teach to the test” instead of responding to the real education needs of their students.
Teachers point out that there is a shortage of social workers and teachers aides in schools; class sizes need to be reduced so teachers can realistically work with all their students; curriculum in schools has been deadened to simply teach to standardized tests; and 25% of CPS schools lack a library.
Mayor Emmanuel was a major backer of SB 7, an Illinois state law that severely weakened teacher unions. Written and proposed by tea-party-type educational “reformers” in the misnamed group, Stand for Children, it was passed with almost universal Democratic and Republican support and then signed by the Democratic governor of this “blue state.” The law also won the backing of the mayor for its restrictions on the Chicago Teacher Union’s right to strike.
The law stipulated that CTU would need 75% of the membership to vote in favor of authorization to strike. Typically, unions need only 50% plus one of members who vote to authorize a strike. One of the right-wing backers of the law boasted that SB 7 would make it impossible for CTU to strike. He was proven wrong when the CTU organized the all-out vote mobilization that resulted in 90% of the active membership to not only vote, but vote in favor of strike authorization.
Part of that law gave the mayor the power to impose a longer school day, starting next year, without negotiations with the union. In contract negotiations the union has proposed a proportional increase in pay for longer hours worked. The union has also proposed smaller class sizes and more resources for them to do their jobs properly. But such reasonable demands have not stopped the corporate press in Chicago from waging a campaign to blame “greedy” teachers for putting themselves in the way of “educational reform.”
The leadership of the CTU, elected in 2010, was born from a rank-and-file movement, Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), who waged a several-years-long struggle against school closings and other fights, as the previous leadership of the union did next to nothing. Since being elected, the CORE leadership has organized the membership of the CTU around several fights culminating in the recent contract campaign. Evidence of this is the fact that not a single one of the 615 schools in CPS voted against strike authorization.
In May, CTU organized an indoor rally, followed by a march in downtown Chicago, as a show of strength. About 6000 teachers rallied and marched to show the mayor that he could not bully Chicago teachers anymore.
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and is reprinted from the July 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.