Day of Action for Chicago teachers

By MARK UGOLINI

— CHICAGO — On April 1, the solidarity of Chicago Teachers, along with the solidarity of more than 50 union, community, and student organizations, was on full display before the entire city and state, and across the country. Nearly 20,000 teachers and supporters flooded the streets in a late-afternoon rally and march in Chicago’s “Loop,” capping a powerful Day of Action on the theme “Fund Our Futures.”

It was an inspirational day that began with picket lines at public schools organized by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and continued in over 30 separate demonstrations, rallies, and teach-ins throughout Chicago. All were coordinated by a broad coalition of labor and community organizations supporting the CTU and other public employee unions that are under assault by powerful forces determined to implement austerity by privatizing schools, breaking unions, and cutting desperately needed social services across the state.

The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates, representing nearly 28,000 Chicago teachers, voted overwhelmingly on March 23 to authorize the April 1 “unfair labor practice (ULP) strike to bring attention to the need for critical revenue solutions to stabilize the city’s school district and protect students and families.” Eighty percent of more than 600 delegates voted for a resolution authorizing the one-day strike, while many of those opposing it favored a strike of longer duration.

A CTU press release states that the one-day strike represents “a direct response to continued attacks and efforts toward union-busting from Governor Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the mayor’s handpicked CPS [Chicago Public Schools] CEO, Forrest Claypool.”

The current $5.7B annual budget of the CPS includes a shortfall of $1.1 billion, of which $480 million is owed by the state of Illinois but remains unpaid because Gov. Rauner has refused to approve a budget that releases funds for education and desperately needed social services across the state.

The Day of Action was endorsed by a wide range of labor and community organizations including Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308; American Federation of Government Employees Local 789; Bakery Confectionary Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers; Black Lives Matter Chicago; BYP 100; Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Fight for $15; Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization; SEIU Health Care Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri; United Electrical Workers Western Region.

Co-chair Johnae Strong from BYP 100 opened the downtown rally: “We are here today … united against austerity … those who are most impacted and marginalized in this city have been living austerity for far too long. [We] proclaim that this is going to be a turning point in this city. We will no longer allow the death of a thousand cuts to continue in the City of Chicago.”

One of the many speakers to address the rally was Irene Robinson of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), one of Chicago’s most influential and respected community organizations. Robinson was one of 12 activists that participated in a 34-day hunger strike last summer to protest a planned phased-out closing of Walter H. Dyett High School by Rahm Emanuel’s appointed School Board “CEO”.

“I have nine grandchildren in CPS … Every last one of us. All the parents of Bronzeville… stand with CTU” said Robinson.   She described the deplorable conditions of some South side schools due to CPS neglect and repeated denial of funding for upgrade projects proposed by parents and staff. “We don’t have no library and we don’t have no books… And [to] Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner: Get your greedy hands off our children! We want an elected school board…We want a world class education for all our schools!”

CTU President Karen Lewis was the rally’s featured speaker: “We’re outside the State of Illinois building … because the governor of this state has decided to hold everybody hostage. … We’re here for not only the children of Chicago. We’re here for the young adults of Chicago, we’re here for people that deserve and are entitled to a real future.

“We’re going to fight for $15, so that all our parents can have a living wage. We are fighting for our sisters and brothers that drive the buses and operate the “El” [public transit trains]; for our sisters and brothers in SEIU health care that take care of the most vulnerable people in this state; for the university professors; for the city college professors; for every single working person in this entire state. Somebody’s got to lead the way, it happened to fall to CTU.”

During the morning picketing, crowds gathered around many schools where rallies were also held. Two such schools were Harlan Community Academy High School on the city’s South Side and Roosevelt High School in the North Side Albany Park neighborhood.   At both schools hundreds of teachers, students, and supporters gathered, including striking McDonalds workers demanding a $15 minimum wage.

Later, feeder marches of students and picketers from other nearby schools joined together and extended the protest to nearby McDonalds restaurants; then, they marched on to attend major rallies at two state-funded universities hard hit by Rauner’s budget blackmail—Chicago State University on the South Side and Northeastern Illinois University on the North Side.

About 1000 people attended a rally and teach-in at Chicago State University organized by student, faculty, and BYP 100, where CTU President Karen Lewis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others spoke. The situation is most dire at Chicago State, where about 30% of university funding (approximately $36 million per year) comes from the state.

“They plan to lock up and not to lift up, because somebody knows that strong minds break strong chains,” Jesse Jackson told the rally. “We will not let them break our spirits. This school will not be closed. The governor may go, but Chicago State will stay.”

The only overwhelmingly Black university in Illinois, Chicago State has not received funds from the state for nearly 10 months and is now falling behind meeting payroll costs. In late February the university sent potential layoff notices to all 900 of its employees. More recently, university officials instructed employees and students to turn in keys to campus buildings and offices, since planning is underway for widespread layoffs as early as April 30. Chicago State has cut back in many areas, and is now struggling to finish the semester without the cash necessary to meet the needs of its 4500 mostly low-income students.

A broad campus coalition including students, faculty, and staff organized the Northeastern Illinois University April 1 Day of Action. An outdoor rally of over 3000 on the University Commons heard a list of speakers including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and representatives of AFSCME District 31 and University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100. It was preceded by a student theatrical dramatization of the “death of education” and the “rising of the phoenix,” symbolizing the fightback required for its survival.

“Our state employees are without a contract going on a year,” said Linda Loew of AFSCME Local 1989. “The governor walked away from the table. … [We] deserve a fair contract just as Chicago teachers deserve a fair contract. The same governor, and the same banks and corporations … are holding all of us hostage!”

Nearly all faculty and university staff at Northeastern have had work hours cut. Most university employees have already seen reductions of 20% in their paychecks. In addition, the state stopped funding MAP financial aid grants to students. Around 2000 students at NEIU alone must receive these funds in order to remain in school. Earlier this year the school’s president, Sharon Hahs, said she anticipates completing the spring semester but there is a possibility that the university will be “shut down” later in the year if no funds are received.

Nabisco workers of Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco, and Grain Mill Workers Union Local 300 joined a CTU picket line at Tarkington Elementary School, and then marched with teachers to Nabisco’s Southwest Side factory for a rally and press conference. Nearly 200 people participated. Nabisco’s parent company, Mondelez International, announced earlier this year that 600 Nabisco workers at the Chicago plant are losing their jobs due to a company decision to open a new plant in Mexico.

Gov. Rauner has just launched a statewide, campaign-style speaking tour throughout Illinois to promote his union-busting, service-slashing “Turnaround Agenda,” important portions of which are supported by both Democratic and Republican politicians around the state.

Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Geiger reported on a meeting Rauner held with the Tribune editorial board: “‘Crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates leverage to change … and we’ve got to use that leverage of the crisis to force structural change,’ said Rauner, borrowing from a political philosophy famously coined by his [Democratic Party] friend Rahm Emanuel that ‘you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.’”

“Opportunity” for big business means massive profits for the tiny few on the backs of all working people throughout the state. Such “opportunities” are always the first priority of capitalist parties and politicians.

Since the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, the union has broadened its base of support, winning allies from others within the labor movement and communities of the oppressed. The April 1 Day of Action shows the progress CTU has made in building the kind of coalition that is needed. Continuing down this path with a strategy of united labor and community action, while remaining independent of the Democratic and Republican parties, can protect gains won in past struggles and win new victories.

It’s already clear that the big-business interests are united in a massive assault on the CTU and all unions throughout the state. It’s also clear that this fight cannot be won by the CTU and its current supporters alone. A much broader struggle is needed.

This offensive can only be effectively challenged with a united counter-mobilization of working-class forces on a massive scale. This means that other powerful Chicago unions need to join the fight and demonstrate that they stand behind the CTU and are willing to take whatever action is necessary to turn back the employer’s offensive and protect the interests of all working people in Illinois.

Photo: Mark Ugolini / Socialist Action