By MARK UGOLINI
— CHICAGO — On Sept. 28, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates announced plans to strike on Oct. 11. Negotiations with Chicago Public Schools on a new contract have made little progress since they began over 22 months ago. The union has been without a contract since June 30, 2015.
Over 90 percent of union’s 25,000 teachers participated in a strike authorization vote conducted Sept. 21-23. Over 95 percent voted in favor of a strike, a percentage easily surpassing the legal requirement that at least 75 percent approve strike action.
The Oct. 11 strike date gives the Chicago Board of Education the 10-day notice required by law. Until then, negotiations will continue. “If we cannot reach the agreement by then, we will withhold our labor,” said CTU President Karen Lewis at a press conference following the CTU House of Delegates meeting: “It’s time to move this along.” This would be the third strike of public school teachers since Democratic Party Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011.
According to the CTU blog site: “This should come as no surprise to the Board, the mayor or parents because educators have been angry about the school-based cuts that have hurt special education students, reduced librarians, counselors, social workers and teachers’ aides, and eliminated thousands of teaching positions.”
A major issue is the mayor’s determination to make teacher’s pay for their pension. What Emanuel is pushing for would result in a decrease in teachers take home pay. His primary target is the city’s 7 percent contribution to the teacher pension fund. Since teachers don’t receive social security benefits, the pension is key to their compensation because it’s all they have to retire on.
As expected, the newspapers, and the rest of the capitalist-controlled media are lining up behind the mayor and Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who have been claiming for months that state and local governments are “broke.” Close personal friends, the mayor and governor have been preparing a coordinated assault on the teachers, part of a generalized austerity offensive especially targeting unions throughout the state. One storyline being played out in the media is that the “selfish” teachers are only concerned with their pensions, are generally overpaid, and don’t work hard enough. All are lies that fly in the face of the facts.
The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial that claimed that the 95.6 percent strike authorization vote was illegitimate and undemocratic since the union utilized a petition process, and not a “secret ballot—which would permit dissent.” The Tribune compared the CTU voting process to “North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un [who] notched an even more convincing victory—100 percent—to confirm his leadership in the Supreme People’s Assembly” and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who “swept to victory with 99.96 percent of votes cast. (We shudder to think of what happened to the recalcitrant .04 percent.)”
In reality, the CTU is a model for democratic functioning. Full and open discussions of important decisions take place freely among the membership within the schools and within its elected House of Delegates.
The union estimates that since 2010, CTU has given up more than $2 billion in lost pay raises, employer contributions to the pension fund, and thousands of teacher layoffs. Just this year, erosion of teacher income through the loss of pay and benefits, and lay-offs of teachers and paraprofessionals, account for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The impact of cutbacks to Chicago public schools has been devastating, primarily affecting schools in Black, Latino, and working-class communities. Students were victims of school closings and consolidations over the last few years especially. In 2013 the mayor closed 50 public schools, affecting close to 40,000 Chicago students in low-income communities. This year, consolidations have continued with an August announcement of another 1000 layoffs. Special education teachers, nurses and social workers, predominantly Black, are the hardest hit.
As the union and its supporters have been saying for some time, the budget “crisis” is manufactured—city and state governments are “Broke on Purpose.” The city had no problem finding money when it decided recently to add 1000 cops to the payroll. The problem is that financing public education is low priority for the Democratic and Republican politicians that run city and state governments.
A teachers strike supported by a broad social movement against austerity and for public education can bring huge pressure on the governmental authorities to re-align their priorities. Sufficient funds to fully support public education are available by taxing local billionaires like real-estate developer Ken Griffin (Illinois’s richest man), his friends, and the corporations that do business throughout the state, and make huge sums in profits each year.
Support for the teachers is growing. The Chicago Teacher Solidarity Campaign was re-established on Sept. 20 with over 100 supporters from unions and community organizations, and has been meeting each week since. The group held a news conference outside City Hall on Oct. 4, and presented the mayor a statement of solidarity signed by more than 50 unions and parent and community organizations proclaiming they will stand solidly with the teachers when they go on strike. On Oct. 6, supporters organized “walk-ins” in over 50 schools and mass leaflet distributions building support for the strike.