Chicago teachers divided over strike settlement

By JEFF MACKLER

Twenty-five thousand Chicago teachers, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers Local 1, AFL-CIO, returned to work on October 31 following a divided vote of the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) 700-member Delegate Assembly (DA) to end the union’s 11-day strike. The vote to accept the five-year tentative contract was 60 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed. Despite the DA’s “tentative” settlement approval and its authorization to return to work immediately, the union’s rank-and-file will also vote on the contract on November 20, the date when the Chicago Board of Education is expected to approve a final settlement term recommended by the Board’s negotiating team, headed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, wherein five make-up days are to be proposed for approval.

The school district’s 7,500 non-teaching staff of custodians, special education assistants and school aides represented by SEIU Local 73, which supported the striking teachers, voted to accept their separate contract on October 31.

The divided teachers’ vote reflected sharp disagreements among Chicago teachers who took seriously the union’s stance to fight for a series of demands that the school board considered “out of scope” of the union’s collective bargaining agreement and state law. These included the district’s support for affordable housing for teachers, students and support staff through Section 8 voucher programs and use tax increment financing funds, an expansion of sanctuary for immigrant students, the addition of community schools that provide a myriad of social services for poor students, and an extension of the city’s moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Few, if any of these demands were incorporated in the final contract. The CTU also demanded sharp and enforceable reductions in class size and the hiring of additional counselors, librarians and nurses.

CTU president Jesse Sharkey announced at the strike’s outset—after Mayor Lightfoot had promised to include unspecified staffing and class size provisions in the contract—that parents should be prepared for a “short term” strike, implying that perhaps the remaining issues could be settled post-haste. Sharkey was a founding member of the left-wing Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, which took over the union’s leadership in 2010, promising to take CTU beyond the politics of bread-and-butter unionism and fight for the city’s broader working class. Ninety-four percent of the CTU’s ranks voted in late September to authorize a strike in a school district of 300,00 students, the third largest in the nation, that is largely re-segregated, poor and historically underfunded. Like many of the nation’s large urban school districts, forty-seven percent of Chicago’s students are Hispanic, 37 percent are African-American and 10 percent are white; some 76 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 16,000 are homeless.

Terms of the new contract

The CTU did achieve enforceable gains in class size and staff support, with the new contract including capping elementary school class sizes at 28 and secondary schools at 31 and guaranteeing at least one counselor, nurse and librarian at every Chicago school. The contract also included a 16-percent salary increase to be phased in over the course of five years. Little or no progress was made in the myriad of other important issues where the union had pledged to fight for community interests. Rank-and-filers who voted No! on the contract insisted that the CTU press on for significantly lower class sizes, for an elementary school teacher preparation period, for additional support for special education, for a three-year contract and for the restoration of the full number of school days.

With regard to the latter, dissenting teachers sought to both guarantee students a full school year and to allow teachers to recover the full eleven days lost in pay over the course of the strike as opposed to the five make-up days tentatively approved in the final contract. Teachers fully understood that the pay lost in their salaries was to be used by the board to settle the contract at teachers’ expense. Said President Sharkey at the final media conference, “There are some things we didn’t achieve; it’s not a day for photo ops and victory laps.”

Indeed, regarding photo ops, the final settlement was announced at an awkward press conference where Sharkey demonstrably declined to stand beside Lightfoot as she reported on the contract agreement. This was sparked by an incident in the hours preceding the final agreement wherein CTU’s Vice President Stacy Davis Gates was stopped at a City Hall elevator by Mayor Lightfoot’s security team and barred from participating in the final round of negotiations that ended the strike. Davis Gates told the Chicago Sun Times, “I couldn’t even go with Jesse [Sharkey] or our attorney to complete the return-to-work agreement. I was stopped at the elevators by her security and [told] that I couldn’t go to the fifth floor and be a part of those return-to-work negotiations. I’ve been at the table for everything, [including] the meeting we had with her … earlier in the week, but was refused entry. It was kind of shocking.”

In separate statements, Mayor Lightfoot alternatively stated that Davis Gates’ exclusion was merely a technical matter concerning the final agreement terms being resolved by herself and Sharkey, plus their respective attorneys. Said Lightfoot, “This was intended to be a principal-to-principal discussion. He’s the president of the union. I’m the mayor of the city.”  But in a separate statement Lightfoot made public her personal dissatisfaction with Davis Gates’ sharp criticisms of the Mayor and the Chicago School Board over their refusal to bargain over critical contract terms. This closing incident was an indication that the far from overwhelming Delegate Assembly vote had its reflections in the CTU’s top leadership.

AFT president Weingarten intervenes

In the course of the strike the AFT’s national president Randy Weingarten visited Chicago teachers several times, on each occasion touting the AFT’s dedication to not only fighting for teachers’ rights but for simultaneously fighting for the needs of students and parents for quality education. Weingarten cited the examples of the successes of last year’s “red state” strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and elsewhere, where teachers won major gains following militant strikes that inspired broad community support. For Weingarten and the top bureaucrats who preside over the AFT however, their advocacy of teachers fighting for the broader rights of students, parents and working class communities is tragically a rhetorical device to win parental support in keeping their children out of school during strikes and avoiding the usual school district bureaucracy mantra that “highly paid,” if not “racist” teachers are in reality striking against the right of poor kids for a decent education. Indeed, Democrat Mayor Lightfoot freely engaged in the fiction that her Chicago School Board’s 100 percent Democratic Party members were the champions of students and public education but were “legally” restricted in what they could negotiate by virtue of extreme local and state budgetary limitations, restrictions on the “scope” of collective bargaining and all others matters financial. They were joined in this poormouthing by the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune and literally all other manner of corporate institutions who daily pilloried the teachers for demanding what the capitalist elite deemed legally and fiscally impossible. 

Weingarten’s tactical message to striking teachers is most often, “It’s one thing to go out on strike; it’s quite another to get back in.” Any strike that lasts beyond a week or so, the AFT leadership counsels, is automatically threatened with disaster as working class parents are increasingly pressed to provide childcare for their children and financially pressed teachers begin to cross union picket lines. The combination of these factors, according to the AFT tops, can only led to an increasing deteriorating of the union’s bargaining position if not an abject and humiliating defeat. That teachers produce no commodities for the market as compared to strikes in capitalism’s for-profit industrial sectors, is also a major consideration of local school boards who pay no financial cost in prolonged teacher strikes and who are more than willing to bleed teachers in lengthy strikes for no other reason than to sometimes use the unpaid salaries “saved” in future settlements.

Lesson of the red state strikes

Weingarten’s reference to the increasing militancy of the nation’s teachers as exemplified by the red state (Republican Party) strikes misses the central lessons of these victories entirely.  The red state strikes in some six states broke every AFT rule in the book regarding how to win great victories.

  • They were state-wide political strikes of indefinite duration that demanded that state legislatures return in full the precise billions of dollars stolen from public education and social services over the course of the past ten years that had been transferred by the states’ legislatures to the coffers of the corporate elite.
  • They demanded not only the return of stolen educational funds but the return of all funds effectively transferred from all public service sector budgets, thus cementing the support of virtually all state workers and their families.

By these simple demands they won the hearts and minds of the state’s working class, indeed the hearts and minds of the nation’s working people. The striking teachers joined with their communities to provide food and community facilities for students during the course of the strike. This fundamental break from the inherent limitations of business teacher unionism is the only serious explanation for the red strike victories.

In contrast, the CTU strike, as well as last year’s teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, were conducted by the old rules of the game, that is, they were local strikes of limited duration, isolated from the city’s overall public employees and directed largely against consciously underfunded local school districts with large communities of Latino, African-American and other oppressed nationalities. In truth, local and state education and most all public service budgets more generally have been dramatically slashed, along with the federal budget, to bailout a crisis-ridden capitalism. In all these short-duration single school district strikes, where close to a majority of the teachers voted No! on the final contract, the overwhelming majority of striking teachers consciously cast their fate in magnificent acts of solidarity with their students and their oppressed communities and to advance their own totally justified needs only to be undercut by the vision of frightened and “practical” union officials whose scope of strategies and tactics were limited to the financial figures presented to them by school officials.

The CTU, along with the city’s bureaucrats, who head some seven other public employee unions, once again proved incapable of uniting all city workers in a common fight against the ever-deepening encroachments on every aspect of public life. Had the CTU strike been joined with the city’s highly unionized workers, the outcome could have been qualitatively different.

President Sharkey’s carefully chosen words advising Chicago parents to prepare for a “short strike” were but his hope and prayer that the CTU might quickly extract a few more bargaining concessions to assuage the CTU ranks and quickly end the union’s strike.

The role of the Democratic Party

Mayor Lightfoot on the other hand, a relative newcomer Democrat to Chicago politics, had another outcome in mind. Understanding full well the self-imposed limitations of routinely conducted teacher strikes, she and her union-busting Democratic Party machine were well prepared. Indeed, Lightfoot, an African-American Democrat, along with her team of African-American negotiators had retained for contract negotiations the same legal counsel as former mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley. “What’s happening at the bargaining table on the management side is not really any different than what we had under Rahm,” said CTU executive board member Kenzo Shibata. But Shibata neglected to mention that the CTU supported not Democrat Lightfoot but yet another “lesser evil” Democrat in the last mayoral race.

At best the CTU strike ended with only limited gains for teachers, tragically in significant part paid for by the lost wages of teachers themselves. In the context of the union’s promised fight against the ever-deepening racist, classist and anti-immigrant attacks on public education, little was achieved.

The red state strikes of last year gained national attention and inspired workers

everywhere that working class unity in the face of generalized corporate plunder could wrench significant victories. But these strikes were not without serious limitations. The leaders of the AFT and the National Education Association pressed the leaders of these statewide strikes to cast their future to the electoral arena. Some 400 teachers or their supported candidates were slated to run as Democrats in the 2018-midterm elections. As with the national AFL-CIO misleaders, the national teachers’ unions are wedded to the Democratic Party, the historic graveyard of all fighting social movements. Indeed, it was the Obama administration that presided over the most extensive cuts in education and social services in recent memory.

Breaking with the twin parties of capitalism in combination with the class struggle strategies brought to the fore during the red state strikes is the only road to transforming today’s moribund labor movement into a fighting force capable of winning decisive future victories.