Chicago teachers union considers strike

By MARK UGOLINI

Although a 30-day “cooling-off period” is now expired, and a teachers strike is allowed per state law, the May 4 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates meeting did not set a strike date. The delegates discussed a new aspect of their campaign to press Chicago’s City Council and Mayor to provide funding necessary to operate public schools.

The CTU also announced that if Democratic Party Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school board decides to unilaterally cancel a 7 percent pension benefit, as school board officials threatened last February, an emergency House of Delegates meeting would be called to provide the required 10-day notice and set a strike date.

The CTU membership has already authorized a strike. If one is called, the union will decide whether the strike will occur before the end of the current school year (June 21), or at the start of the fall term in September.

CTU has been without a contract since June 30, 2015, when the contract reached after the seven-day strike of September 2012 expired. Talks between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and CTU have been ongoing for the past 18 months.

On April 16, a fact finder, Steven Bierig, recommended that the parties reconsider an old CPS contract offer that had already been unanimously rejected by the CTU bargaining team. On the same day the CTU formally rejected the proposal, making it a “dead letter” and thus starting a 30-day countdown to a possible strike.

The House of Delegates gave union officers authority to immediately reject the fact-finding report if its conclusions offered “no substantial breakthrough in terms of class-size limits, reasonable economics, or the closure of devastating loopholes.”

A CTU press release explains: “The previously-rejected contract proposal made by CPS on January 29 would result in teachers taking home less in earnings at the end of the proposed four-year contract than they earn today.” The proposal would also phase out over two years a 7 percent CPS pension contribution, and limit salary “steps and lanes” increases. Both of these have been features of teacher contracts over many years, and remain key issues for the teachers.

Prior to the May 4 House of Delegates meeting, the CTU released details of a $502 million CPS “revenue recovery package,” calling on Emanuel and the city council to act on its recommendations.

“We have identified half a billion dollars that can triage the bleeding at CPS,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “We are asking the mayor and aldermen to implement what we believe is a solid package of financial emergency supports to ensure our district does not go belly up … our revenue recovery package is necessary right now to stave off mass layoffs, school closings and more furloughs that will wreak havoc on our students and classrooms. Over the next few weeks we’ll be lobbying every city council member to support this plan.”

In a CTU press release the union proposes the state government enact a progressive tax structure, a Millionaire’s Tax, and a financial transaction tax. Locally, the union proposes that the mayor and city council “consider a number of local revenue options, which the City of Chicago city council could approve.”

This $502 million package would reinstate a Corporate Employer “Head Tax”; and initiate a Personal Property Lease Tax, a Ride Sharing Tax on services like UBER and LYFT, a Hotel Accommodations Tax, a Vehicle Fuel Tax, and a Commercial Property Tax Assessment.

It would also allocate surplus funds from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts. TIF financing is a tool used by the city of Chicago to promote business investment. Currently, TIF accounts, funded from local property taxes, have an estimated surplus of up to $350 million.

The attack on the CTU is clearly part of a broader, statewide bipartisan assault on union rights, public education, and social services. The CTU is in the crosshairs of both a Republican governor’s “Turnaround Agenda” and a Democratic Party mayor’s drive to privatize schools and seriously weaken unions.

The April 1 Day of Action and one-Day CTU strike was a powerful expression of solidarity of Chicago teachers and their supporters around the city and throughout the county. More than 50 unions, community groups, and student organizations participated in the day of protests, and nearly 20,000 teachers and supporters took to the streets in a late-afternoon mass demonstration to stand up for teachers and defend all those targeted by this statewide, bipartisan austerity offensive.

The path forward involves building on this success, deepening solidarity among other powerful Chicago unions, and soliciting their active support. This means continuing to mobilize in opposition to the Rauner/Emanuel austerity program, while remaining independent of the two big-money parties. The capitalist Democratic and Republican party politicians in City Hall and Springfield are in the service of big business and cannot be relied on to deliver the solutions needed. It is only the powerful force of mass action and independent struggle that will force concessions, partial gains, and future victories.

A theme of the April 1 Day of Action was “Broke On Purpose,” a recognition that this “budget crisis” was manufactured by Rauner and his vacation friend Rahm Emanuel, who are primarily interested in promoting their pro-big-business agenda. They are joined at the hip in their quest to weaken and break Illinois unions and cater to the profit lust of large corporations and their billionaire friends, like Illinois’ richest man, hedge-fund tycoon Ken Griffin. As just one example of many, Griffin has been rewarded with millions in tax breaks in real estate and other business transactions with the city.

This emphasizes the pressing need for a labor party. Such a party could champion the struggles of workers in the political arena. A labor party would build political opposition to the two capitalist parties on a broader scale, and pose an alternative view–that what we face is not a narrow budget issue, and not centrally one of “fairness” or “shared sacrifice.” For working people the budgets of capitalist governments have never been fair, and never will be. It’s always the working class that pays, and when a periodic “crisis” emerges, the working class is always called on to pay more.

A labor party could mobilize other forces in the labor movement to call for a budget that puts people before profits. If government budgets need to be balanced, balance them on the backs of the billionaires like Ken Griffin and his friends, their big corporations, their tax-advantaged hedge funds, and their tax-free off-shore accounts—not from the pockets of working people compelled to endure the devastating daily reality of economic injustice.