FACED WITH Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials' refusal to budge on key contract issues, including wages and job security, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) filed a 10-day strike notice on August 29.
This means that union members could be walking the picket line as early as September 10, in what would be the CTU's first strike in 25 years. On August 30, a standing-room-only CTU House of Delegates meeting voted unanimously in favor of the September 10 strike date.
"This step is a necessary step and frankly one that CPS could have been avoided from the very beginning," CTU President Karen Lewis told reporters. "Instead, they have fought us every step of the way."
CPS has so far refused to negotiate seriously on numerous critical issues, including wages, job security, class size, sick days, health benefits and the length of the contract. For example, CPS wants to end the practice of step increases, in which teachers get wage increases based on additional years of teaching. Teachers say this is a step toward the merit-pay schemes that other districts use–something they adamantly oppose.
CPS officials' arrogance in negotiations is in keeping with their attitude since contract talks began almost a year ago. At every step of the way, CPS has pushed hard for concessions–for example, unilaterally rescinding a previously negotiated 4 percent raise last year and instituting a new curriculum while expecting teachers to be evaluated on how well their students do on standardized tests.
In July, CPS agreed to hire nearly 500 teachers to support a longer school day that will be imposed this year. The longer day is the brainchild of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel–but he has had nothing to say about what instruction would take place during the additional time, and he refused to pay teachers for the longer work day.
The agreement to hire more teachers was a significant concession by CPS–and a direct result of the CTU uniting with parents' groups and community activists to put pressure on the city. But since then, CPS has dragged its feet on the new hiring–and it continues to take a hard line on other issues.
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FOR THEIR part, teachers have demonstrated their determination to push back–voting overwhelmingly in June to authorize a strike and turning out in large numbers for informational pickets last week at Track E schools, which began classes on August 20. The majority of Chicago public schools on Track R will go back to class the day after Labor Day.
And they are winning support from parents, students and activists. The next major event for CTU members and their supporters is a Labor Day Rally for Jobs, Dignity and a Fair Contract, which hopefully will bring the rest of the labor movement together behind the Chicago teachers.
CPS continues to try to prey on working parents' concerns about what to do with their children if there's a teachers' strike. After the strike notice was issued, Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced that CPS has a contingency plan it calls "Children First."
CPS plans to work with other city agencies like the public libraries and park district, local faith organizations and other non-profits to keep 145 schools open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. CPS says the centers will provide daily meals and be staffed by CPS central office personnel, non-CTU employees and organizations that have submitted proposals to provide programming.
The school board has so far authorized $25 million for this effort. As teachers and many parents have concluded, while Brizard and CPS say they can't find the resources to deal with teachers' demands on pay and staffing, they have all the money in the world to try to break a strike.
Clearly it's union-busting, not children, that Brizard and CPS put "first."
Teachers and their supporters among parents, students and the community can have only one response to CPS's bullying: solidarity.
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ON AUGUST 29, some 250 people came together at the Chicago Temple downtown to voice their support for teachers and spread that message of solidarity to greater numbers of parents and community members.
Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers told the crowd: "Our message has to be–to the mayor, to the board, to Mr. Brizard–that you are the ones that can prevent a strike. If there is a teachers' strike, it is on your heads, not the teachers."
The entrance to the meeting, which was organized by Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, was lined with tables where people could sign up to get involved in organizing solidarity for teachers in their schools, neighborhoods, workplaces or unions.
From the podium, well-known community activists like Jitu Brown from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Father José Landaverde from Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church joined union members like the CTU's Michael Brunson and Michael Caref of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11, a parent who was part of an occupation of an annex of her child's elementary school to prevent its demolition, and parent activists in the groups like Parents 4 Teachers and Raise Your Hand.
Two teachers from the Social Justice High School talked about the harassment and contempt many teachers–particularly union activists–are up against at CPS.
Katie Hogan, a 12-year CPS teacher, described how she was laid off on August 24 by an interim principal who claimed Hogan's position–as one of the school's three English teachers–had been closed "for economic reasons":
Imagine what is your greatest fear in your lives, besides losing the people closest to you. For me, that was not being able to teach. And my fear came true this Friday. Five minutes after my last class, I was escorted by security from the school that I helped found, from a system I've worked in for 12 years…
We are not alone… As soon as I told people about my dismissal, I started hearing from people all around Chicago about how their position had been closed or redefined or they needed triple-certification to teach, and there was one thing that rang–these people were all really strong union activists…
If we didn't have a union, you wouldn't be hearing our story, because the only reason we are all here is because the CTU continues to fight for us.
In the audience were other teachers facing harassment at their schools, frustrated parents and a member of the newly formed union representing charter school teaches.
Also on hand to show their support were a dozen teachers who know what it means to confront union-busters. Members of Madison Teachers, Inc., (MTI) carpooled to the Chicago event after hearing a Chicago teacher speak at a solidarity event in their city. Because of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting assault, MTI members are looking at their last year with a collective bargained agreement. As one MTI member said:
We are all fighting the same fight. It's a fight for our students, our schools, for their right to a quality public education. It's clear that public education is under attack across the country, but what our opponents have not accounted for is the strength we have when we stand here together united.
This is a high-stakes fight–for teachers, their unions and the future of public education. The support that is beginning to be built in Chicago and elsewhere will have to be replicated in school after school and neighborhood after neighborhood.