Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago Teachers: As long as it takes to win a good contract

Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass
Socialist Worker
14 September 2012

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, at a meeting of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates, CTU leaders said they had reached an agreement on what they called the "outlines" of a new contract. The details need to be finalized, they said, but they hope to have a proposal ready for delegates to vote on at a meeting on Sunday. If approved then, the contract would go to the entire membership for ratification, though classes could resume on Monday. The CTU House of Delegates voted on Sunday to not suspend the strike and to give delegates two days to hold discussions with the Union's 26,000 members about the draft agreement between the Union and the Chicago Board of Education.

STRIKING TEACHERS in Chicago walked the picket line for a fourth day on Thursday with raised hopes after leaders of their union said they thought they were closer to an agreement on a new contract.

But as Chicago teachers know full well, you can't trust Mayor Rahm Emanuel or his personally anointed millionaire school board to follow through on any promise unless they're forced to. Negotiations won't be over--or the strike either--until Chicago Teachers Union officials have an agreement in hand that they can share with the union's 26,000 members.

Emanuel has been gunning for the CTU since before his election as mayor in 2011. He thought he could intimidate and abuse the teachers into submission, and then flaunt their concessions to prove he was the new boss in Chicago.

But the teachers stood up to this bully. Last June, nearly 90 percent of all CTU members--and an incredible 98 percent of those who cast a ballot--voted to authorize a strike. When the time to walk came on September 10, teachers hit the picket line and haven't looked back. If union leaders are making headway at the negotiating table, it's because of this determined mobilization.

The CTU's House of Delegates was due to meet for an update on negotiations at 2 p.m. on Friday, and as talks broke up after midnight, there was no news of a deal. So teachers and their supporters will continue with daily pickets--and prepare for a mass rally on Saturday that they hope will show the full scope of support for the union. The demonstration will begin at noon at Union Park, at Ashland and Lake, west of downtown--the site of the very first of the mega-marches for immigrant rights in 2006 that shook American politics.

As one teacher said on a West Side picket line Thursday: "We've achieved more in four days of striking than in 10 months of negotiations. But it ain't over 'til it's over. We're standing strong until we see what's being offered--and not from the anti-union Chicago Tribune, but from our union. It's only by staying strong, continuing to mobilize support, and exposing the injustices in our educational system that we will win."

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THE STRIKE continued Thursday with energetic pickets lines in the morning at schools across the city--and then a demonstration of tens of thousands at a downtown Hyatt hotel.

Protesters focused on the Hyatt because Penny Pritzker, heiress to the Hyatt family fortune, sits on Emanuel's appointed school board--and her company has taken millions in funds from the city's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system, basically a slush fund for the mayor to funnel taxpayer dollars to his developer pals, rather than give them to schools and poor communities, where the money is desperately needed.

All eyes are on this battle for Chicago's future--here in the city, and around the country--because it is so clearly about more than teachers' wages and benefits, as important as they are, but the future of public education.

Speaking on behalf of big business and the political establishment, the Chicago Tribune published the latest in a series of editorial rants Thursday arguing that Emanuel's war on the teachers was of historic importance: "Chicago Teachers Union officials aren't merely fighting City Hall. They're fighting the inevitability of education reform. They are denying the arc of history."

But teachers know a little something about history, too--and the high stakes in this struggle. On every picket line, they talk about the importance of their fight for themselves, their families and their students, but also for other educators. Donielle Lawson, who teaches special education at York Alternative High School, located inside Cook County Jail, told the Chicago Tribune: "Other schools and strikers around the country can realize we should no longer be bullied."

Lawson said she was looking forward to discussing the lessons of the CTU's struggle with her students inside Cook County. "They're all too familiar with bullying and societal injustices, so it would be a very easy conversation with them," she said. "They're all fighting cases right now."

The city has been cranking up its anti-teacher propaganda machine to full volume--and they have plenty of allies to call on among those connected to the Democratic Party political machine.

For example, a group of religious leaders published an open letter in the Chicago Sun-Times urging teachers to go back to work. "We do not side with the Mayor, the Chicago Public Schools, or your organization," the letter claimed. "We side with the 350,000 students who will be placed in harm's way if you lead Chicago teachers into a strike."

As the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky pointed out, "Of course, by writing this letter, they're very much siding with the mayor. Because if the union calls off the strike, they lose what little leverage they have to force the tough and powerful people who run this city to give them even a fraction of what they want."

This is the new favorite mantra for Emanuel and his supporters on the City Council: The teachers should go back to the classroom while union leaders meet with CPS officials to work everything out.

Only none of the 33 City Council alder-sheep who demanded a return to work in a letter to CTU President Karen Lewis have had anything to say about negotiations between teachers and the city since they began 10 months ago. Their first signs of interest date from the day the teachers went on strike.

That's yet more evidence of the importance of this courageous strike by Chicago teachers. In the last few days, they've done much more to focus attention, not only their own cause, but on the struggle to defend public education in general--for people around Chicago and the country.

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THE SAME goes for the chorus of voices suddently talking about failing schools in Chicago, and expressing concern about the students who attend them. But only now--after the teachers have gone on strike.

If these schools are failing, it's not because of the teachers, but because they've been starved of resources--right under the noses of city officials. As a direct result of supposed "reform" schemes, schools in poor neighborhoods have been underfunded until they are deemed "failing." Then, they are closed or "turned around"--or replaced by a charter or selective-enrollment school.

Last winter, the Board of Education unanimously voted to close or turn around 17 neighborhood schools rather than devote greater resources to them. Six of the schools were slated for takeover by the politically connected charter operator Academy for Urban School Leadership. In other words, they were slated to make a profit.

The schools left to die on the vine are in poor and disproportionately Black and Latino neighborhoods, of course. As thousands of protesters chanted at Wednesday's march at Marshall High School on the West Side, "Hey, Rahm, we're not fools--we won't let you ruin our schools!" Earlean Green, a member of the local school council at Marshall, described the twisted priorities of Emanuel and friends:

Why are the public schools paying for private schools? When our students go to charter schools, and they don't come up to par, the first thing they do is put them out. They send them back to the public schools, but they don't send the money with them. They keep the money. When they come back to the public schools, and they don't come up to par...they put the teachers out.

Rahm Emanuel and his friends aren't fighting for the schools our children deserve. They're fighting for an agenda of privatization, charter schools, high-stakes testing and busting teachers' unions, where the ultimate aim is to destroy public education.

Working-class Chicago is showing what side they're on. The latest in a series of polls, conducted by a generally Republican pollster no less, shows the CTU with far greater support than Emanuel and CPS--55.5 percent of people said they generally supported the decision of the CTU to go on strike.

Teachers--not politicians and for-profit schools pushers--are the best equipped to decide what public education needs to thrive. And in Chicago, teachers are taking a stand to make that a reality.

They need all the support we can give them--on the picket lines for as long as the strike continues, at the Saturday mass rally in Union Park, and in the weeks and months to come.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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