Chicago teachers defeat plan to gut schools

By DAVID BERNT

 CHICAGO—After a nine-day strike that electrified this city and won broad support from working people, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union returned, heads held high, to the classroom Sept. 19 after successfully pushing back against an all-out attack against their union. The teachers’ strike ended the day before by a vote of the union’s House of Delegates after a democratic discussion of a tentative agreement reached with the Chicago School Board. The contract was approved on Oct. 2 by a 79.1% vote of the union membership.

In the face of an attempt to completely bust their union, the CTU was forced to strike, as the school board refused to back down from its demands for massive concessions. The union was well prepared for the strike, having mobilized the rank and file for a multitude of actions over the past two years and having built ties with neighborhood and parent organizations.

The union maintained picket lines outside of all 615 Chicago public schools and CPS headquarters. Neighborhoods were dotted with groups of teachers wearing red CTU shirts and holding signs at major intersections and expressway overpasses. Parents, students, and community members joined the picket lines, knowing that the teachers were fighting for better schools.

Morning picket lines in the neighborhoods were followed by afternoon mass rallies downtown, where on three consecutive days more than 10,000 teachers flooded the streets. Picket lines were greeted with a constant chorus of honks in support of their strike. Honks came often from CTA bus drivers, fire engines, squad cars, and other city vehicles whose unions have also been in the sights of the union busters in City Hall and whose rank and file clearly saw the teachers’ fight as an extension of their own struggles.

Other unions in the city showed support. Teamsters Local 705 provided their union hall for CTU strike headquarters. Officers and members of the Firefighters Union, SEIU, AFSCME, ATU, and other public-sector unions joined teacher picket lines. Teachers unions across the country showed support, including UTLA of Los Angeles, which donated $10,000 to the union’s strike fund. SEIU Local 1, which represents maintenance and cleaning workers in CPS, honored picket lines. UPS drivers also honored the picket lines, refusing to deliver to CPS.

Working people in this city stood with the teachers despite an avalanche of anti-union editorials and news reports from the corporate media. Although the strike caused major inconveniences for working-class parents, over 50% of city residents, and an astounding 66% of parents of CPS students, supported the teachers in the strike.

The union won popular support by emphasizing that they were fighting for better schools. The union demands for smaller class sizes, more social workers, more libraries, and other resources to help students resonated with Chicago’s working class, who have experienced eroded public services across the board at the same time City Hall hands out hundreds of millions each year to corporations and politically connected developers. A popular sign at teachers’ picket lines and rallies read, “my working conditions are your child’s learning conditions.”

The attack on public education in this city escalated when Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff for President Obama, took office in 2011. Emanuel has made breaking public-sector unions, especially the teachers union, the cornerstone of his mayoralty. Emanuel packed the Chicago School Board with billionaires—including Penny Pritzker, an heiress of the Hyatt Hotel Chain and Obama fundraiser—who have advocated breaking unions in order to replace public schools with privately run charter schools in Chicago and across the country.

The board cancelled a previously negotiated 4% raise for 2011. Emanuel, with the support of other Democrats in the Illinois legislature, pushed a new state law that required school districts to develop teacher evaluations that are highly dependent on unreliable standardized tests and undermined teacher seniority, and limited the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining rights, among other anti-union provisions. The law had several new regulations aimed specifically at the Chicago Teachers Union, including a requirement that 75% of the membership, not just those who vote, authorize a strike. One of the bill’s proponents, Jonah Edelman, head of the anti-union Stand for Children, declared that the new law would make a Chicago teacher strike impossible.

Union offered vision of how to fix the schools

The Chicago Teachers Union, led by a reform leadership elected in 2010, decided from the beginning that Rahm Emmanuel and his billionaire friends’ “reform” agenda was an outright attack on their union and public education generally. Unlike in other big city school systems, where teachers unions have not put up a fight and even become willing collaborators in the undermining of public education, the CTU refused to be “partners” with the union busters. Instead, they offered a competing vision of how to fix public schools and prepared the rank and file to fight for it. CTU denounced the “blame the teacher” reform proposals, calling instead for more resources for neighborhood schools.

As bargaining stalled, the teachers union mobilized members in a contract campaign. The teachers and allied parent and neighborhood organizations distributed leaflets in Chicago’s neighborhoods explaining what the struggle was about and how the union was fighting for better schools. The union held a mass indoor rally followed by a march of 5000 teachers through downtown Chicago near the end of last school year.

The union than held a strike-authorization vote. An astounding 92% of the bargaining unit voted to authorize the strike. Not a single one of the 615 CPS Schools voted against the authorization. Two weeks before the strike, a rally of over 10,000 teachers and their supporters flooded downtown Chicago on Labor Day.

In addition to the public contract campaign, the union also organized itself internally. Each school assigned a picket captain to organize logistics. The union also had a strike headquarters, where teachers and supporters could pick up and distribute leaflets, picket signs, and other strike materials. A daily strike bulletin was published to update members on negotiations and daily strike activities.

As the strike entered its fifth day, the unions’ negotiating team and the CPS board came close to a tentative agreement. CPS quickly leaked to the media that a deal had been agreed upon and the strike would soon be over. CTU responded that although a deal was close it had not been agreed upon, and in any case the strike could not be suspended until a vote of the union’s House of Delegates.

That Saturday a mass solidarity rally in Union Park of over 10,000 workers, many from unions from around the Midwest, again took over parts of Chicago. The following day, CTU officers presented the tentative agreement to the House of Delegates. In a move that shocked the corporate media and political class, the House of Delegates voted to continue the strike, not on a basis of rejecting the agreement outright, but so delegates could review the agreement and get input from their members. This exemplary display of union democracy was met by denunciations from the media and politicians, most of all Rahm Emanuel, who filed, unsuccessfully, for an emergency injunction to force teachers back to work.

That Monday teachers headed back to the picket lines in the morning and in the afternoon each school met in locations across the city to democratically discuss the pros and cons of the deal and whether their delegate should vote to suspend the strike. The following day, the House of Delegates, after an intense and heated discussion of the tentative agreement voted to suspend the strike.

Significant gains; painful concessions

The contract negotiated by the union blunted the worst of the proposals made by the school board, made gains in other areas, and also included some painful concessions.

Among the provisions defended and gained are:

• The contract preserves step-and-lane increases, in which teachers are paid more based on seniority and educational level, and it beat back the boards’ proposal for merit pay, where teachers would receive salary increases based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Merit pay is the signature issue of groups like Stand for Children and other anti-union education “reform” outfits who assumed the new anti-union law would force CTU to accept it. They seek to erode teacher seniority and increase even further the use of standardized tests.

• Teachers gained salary increases of 3%, 2%, and 2%, and an optional 4th year at 3%. The contract is for three years, with the union having an option to void the 4th year, at which time the end of the contract would coincide with the mayoral election.

• Maintained current health-care benefit levels: The board proposed a 40% increase in employee contributions. This was a major victory, as almost all collective bargaining contracts, both public and private sector, contain health-care concessions these days. However, the union agreed to participate in an intrusive “wellness program” aimed at reducing health care costs.

• Many improvements in work-rule language, including an anti-harassment article to protect teachers from bullying principals: The contract preserved classroom size language that the board wanted eliminated. Teachers are guaranteed textbooks for their students starting on the first day of school. There was also improved language for clinicians, paraprofessionals, nurses, and social workers, and the board agreed to hire more support staff if funds become available.

Some of this new language will be hard to enforce, since it is dependent on new gambling money from a bill that has not been passed yet. CPS already routinely violates the classroom size language. However, preserving and winning contract language will put the union in a better position to continue the fight for well-funded schools.

In an agreement made prior to contract negotiations, CPS agreed to hire 600 laid-off teachers in music, arts, and world language subjects in order to lengthen the school day, as Emanuel had unilaterally imposed for this school year, without substantially lengthening the teachers’ workday. Emanuel had wanted to lengthen teachers’ workdays without a raise in salary.

• The contract won enhanced language on grievance definitions and arbitration for discipline cases. Improved short-term disability and maternity benefits. Doubled annual supply fund per teacher to $250.

• New language on recall rights: Teachers whose schools close will be able to follow their students to the schools they are transferred to if positions are available. Laid-off teachers will also be placed on a recall list. New teaching positions will have to be filled 50% from the recall list, a compromise since the union wanted 100% filled by laid-off teachers. Another weakness of the recall language is that teachers who are rated as “unsatisfactory” by a new evaluation system will not be eligible for the recall list. Despite these weaknesses, the recall language is a major gain; previously, Chicago teachers had no district-wide seniority, only seniority within their school.

Among the major concessions was a new teacher evaluation system, in which lower scoring teachers would lose seniority protection for layoffs. The evaluation system was mandated by SB 7, and the union did negotiate to limit the use of standardized tests in scoring to 30%, the minimum allowable by law. There will also be an appeal process for teachers scoring in the lowest category.

The evaluation system will not subject tenured teachers to layoffs in the contract’s first year. Nonetheless, many teachers could face layoff based on subjective evaluations that do not take into consideration the conditions their students face outside the classroom and the lack of resources inside it. Severance pay for laid-off teachers will also be reduced to six months down from 12 months.

Despite not winning all of their demands and agreeing to some concessions, the overall contract has more wins than losses. CTU faced many obstacles, including a hostile collective bargaining environment, as unions everywhere have given historic concessions, including teacher unions in large urban school districts, where locals, often with the encouragement from the national leadership of the AFT, have agreed to pay cuts, merit pay, and given up seniority entirely.

The union also faced a mayor who was emboldened by aggressive support from the ruling class and the White House to bust the CTU as an example to all teacher unions that the even the militant CTU could not defeat the attempt to destroy public education. SB 7, quite intentionally, reduced CTU’s ability to bargain, making all issues except for wages and benefits permissible topics of bargaining instead of mandatory, meaning CPS was not required to bargain class sizes, working conditions, seniority, and other working conditions.

The threat of injunction hung in the air, as CPS may well have convinced a judge that the CTU strike was illegal since the outstanding issues in bargaining were non-economic. All along, CTU rejected the limitations on bargaining, continuously proposing non-economic issues such as class size and air-conditioning.

In the face of this, CTU decided to fight back, and they fought hard. By striking and unleashing their social power to push back against an unabashed attempt at union busting in an era where so many unions have simply laid down in the face of pressure, the Chicago teachers have provided a shining example to all workers of how to win and to defend past gains.

A blueprint for union struggle

The strike laid out the initial outlines of a blueprint for every union on how to fight back. CTU proved that when unions battle they win the sympathy of other working people, union and non-union, who know from their own experiences that the bosses and politicians are seeking to cut wages and public services. CTU rejected the all-too-common practice of secret negotiations and publicized what was being discussed with their membership and the public.

The union reaped the benefits of longstanding ties with neighborhood and parent organizations. The solidarity from community groups during the strike was no fly-by-night alliance. CTU leaders have been working for years with groups across the city against school closures and other issues, building mutual trust between the union and community and parent organizations.

The internal organization of the rank and file was critical. The ranks were constantly mobilized both before and especially during the strike to provide visibility to the struggle and provide a sympathetic image of dedicated teachers fighting City Hall. The strike authorization vote alone put to bed the myth that teacher unions don’t represent rank-and-file teachers. Even more critically, the unions’ democratic functioning made possible an engaged membership, who felt genuinely that this fight was theirs to win.

The officers kept nothing from the ranks, explaining each step of the way their strategy and goals and seeking membership approval and input throughout. This was most exemplified in the House of Delegates vote to suspend the strike. The officers did not try to sugar coat the deal and muscle through a yes vote, as is standard in most unions. When the House of Delegates wanted more time to examine the tentative agreement, the officers deferred, and encouraged a democratic discussion among the ranks.

This fightback by teachers resulted in an important advance for working people. The collective strength and determination of the Chicago teachers dented, at least for the moment, the 1%’s onslaught on the public services that serve the 99% and the workers who provide them. Chicago teachers returned to work in high spirits knowing they had done so.

Almost all teachers wore red on the first day of school as a sign of solidarity and strength. Chicago teachers know they have won a battle, but the war continues. CPS is planning to close over 100 schools in the next few years and plan to continue opening new non-union charter schools. Massive budget cuts are on the horizon, and the Chicago teachers’ pension is also in crisis after a decade of CPS’s failing to make pension contributions. Successfully beating back Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to bust their union has put CTU in a strong position to continue the battle to defend their union and public education.

Union militants and class-struggle fighters took note of the fact that CTU President Karen Lewis became somewhat of an overnight national figure because she led a major challenge to a Chicago Democratic Party administration intent on breaking the third largest teachers’ union in the country. The often-repeated call for Lewis to run for mayor echoed an important sentiment for working people to run their own candidates for public office, as opposed to the present subordination of the union bureaucracy to the anti-worker Democratic Party.

As is often the case when working people engage in serious strike battles, the question is posed as to what weapons they have available in the political arena. The need for a labor party based on reinvigorated, democratic unions in alliance with the oppressed has never been more striking.

The CTU strike also showed the critical need for labor solidarity. While the CTU example brought some picket-line support to the teachers, the reality of the labor leadership default was glaring in Chicago when virtually every public employee union signed individual and major concessionary contracts, leaving Chicago teachers to go it alone. Labor’s classical solidarity slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was honored in the breach.

If there ever was a time to call for a Chicago Congress of Labor—not to mention a national labor congress—to meet the concerted ruling-class offensive against all workers, this was it. Had the major public employee unions, as well as broader union forces, convened such a congress and considered a proposal for a united solidarity pact against future cutbacks and erosion of hard-fought workers’ gains, the defeatist notion that working people have no alternative but to accept devastating blows could be blown asunder.

Despite receiving merely lackluster support from the labor movement, Chicago teachers and their parent and community allies persevered and significantly set back the major efforts of the ruling parties to impose a stinging defeat. It is only a matter of time until the example of the CTU becomes the norm, and no union will be compelled to take on the bosses and their kept media and courts alone. “Solidarity Forever,” the music and fighting spirit that brought the organized labor movement into being, will once again be shouted out strong and clear by workers everywhere.