Learning from the Chicago teachers

September 27, 2012

Social struggles around the country will be stronger because of the teachers' victory.

THE STRIKE by the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in September has lessons for many people, inside Chicago and out.

It taught teachers around the country: You can challenge the attack on your jobs, your unions and your schools--and win. It taught students and parents: There's an alternative to deteriorating conditions, school closures and the corporatization of education if we all fight together. And finally, for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the supposed Democratic "friends of labor" and corporate school "reformers": You'd better think twice before you go after us again.

The schools showdown in Chicago, which the CTU rightly called "a fight for the very soul of public education," forced everyone--from teachers and parents and community members to political leaders--to answer the question: Which side are you on?

The answer from most Chicagoans was plain to see on the streets--especially when they were clogged with mass protests, colored CTU bright red. Morning picket lines at schools in every neighborhood were strong, loud and enthusiastic, proving that teachers were ready for this fight. In the afternoon and over the weekend, teachers were joined by supporters for huge rallies and marches, held at City Hall and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters downtown, as well as in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

CTU members and supporters join in a mass march to Marshall High School on the West Side
CTU members and supporters join in a mass march to Marshall High School on the West Side (Chicago Teacher Solidarity Campaign)

Through it all, opinion polls showed that more people in Chicago sided with the teachers than the city. Support for the CTU was even stronger among parents of CPS students, despite the difficulties the strike caused for them and the propaganda offensive designed to pit them against the union.

Public sentiment turned sharply against Emanuel, whose arrogance and bullying made him the butt of jokes on picket signs and the target of chants like "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!" There was plenty of anger for Rahm's wealthy allies, too--like billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, a member of the mayor's handpicked school board who skimmed off city funds that could go to schools in order to build a new hotel.

But Chicagoans also knew who they were for: the teachers. Ultimately, the CTU came to represent an alternative vision--for public schools, run with adequate funding, where every student and every teacher is valued; and, by extension, for government and the city as a whole, with different priorities that put people before business interests.

ON THE other side, Rahm Emanuel had his proponents of corporate school "reform"--for example, phony citizen's groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which sponsored anti-teacher ads that seemed to run every five minutes during the strike.

Lurking behind such groups and posing as "concerned citizens" were the super-rich elite who stand to profit from closing public schools, opening for-profit charters and decimating teachers' unions.

One "concerned citizen, " Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist and charter school backer who Emanuel put on the board of World Business Chicago, made the priorities of the city's business and political establishment crystal clear at a seminar for the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute.

Calling the contract negotiations with the CTU "one battle in a very long-term fight," Rauner said, "The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things--get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That's what they're paid to do. They're not about the students. They're not about results."

"It's the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers," Rauner said. "They're the ones that the union is protecting, and that's where there's a conflict of interest between the good teachers and the union bosses."

Also in Emanuel's corner were a few embarrassments for the former chief of staff to Barack Obama. Like Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who congratulated the Democratic mayor for taking on the CTU, and Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who denounced Chicago teachers as "thugs." Fox News and the blowhards of right-wing talk radio discovered a new enemy on which to heap racist abuse in CTU President Karen Lewis.

But even with the right ranting at top volume, it was impossible to miss the fact that the teachers were taking on a Democratic mayor--and in the hometown of a Democratic president.

Barack Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan remained publicly neutral during the CTU strike, but their policies echoed through in each of Emanuel's attacks on teachers and their union. As Emanuel accurately pointed out, Obama had taken sides long before the strike. "I want you to understand, the president has weighed in," Emanuel said. "Every issue we're talking about regarding accountability of our schools, quality in our schools...is the core thrust of Race to the Top."

The Obama administration's Race to the Top (RTTT) is an extension--actually, an escalation--of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Essentially, RTTT offers additional federal funds for education, but only if state governments lift caps on charter schools, tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores, and clear the way for implementing merit pay.

Every single point in RTTT was on Emanuel's hit list in his war on Chicago teachers.

The bottom line is this: The Democratic Party has fallen in line behind the assault on public schools--from the party leaders crafting school deform laws in Washington to Emanuel's flock of City Council alder-sheep, who reliably re-bleated every lie and slander from Mayor 1 Percent.

We also learned a few disappointing lessons about the official labor movement during the course of this struggle.

Randi Weingarten, president of the CTU's parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), turned up in Chicago during the strike to offer her "assistance" in negotiations. But according to one account in a Huffington Post story, the AFT directed locals in other cities not to provide buses to Chicago for a solidarity rally a week into the strike--because Weingarten hoped to work things out with Emanuel herself.

Fortunately, she didn't get the chance. In other cities, Weingarten's role has been to counsel AFT locals to accept merit pay and other concessions in the name of "realism."

The leaders of the CTU went in the other direction. Instead of selling concessions to members, they gave teachers a chance to take a stand. All along the way--from the members' overwhelming strike authorization vote last June to the discussion about the proposed contract and the decision to end the strike by the House of Delegates--the CTU provided a lesson in union democracy, with its roots in the rank and file.

THE CHICAGO teachers' strike has transformed the discussion about public education and school "reform"--most obviously in Chicago, but also nationally.

That conversation has been dominated by teacher-blaming and pro-business non-solutions. Instead, the strike exposed the real shape of education for Chicago's children, in a city where 80 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The CTU struggle put a human face on teachers and students who try to teach and learn in schools without air conditioning, libraries, books or chairs.

Like the organization of the strike itself, these connections to broader issues and activism didn't happen by accident. The CTU worked long and hard to build links to community organizations fighting for education and social justice. During the strike, the union organized marches through the South and West Sides to show where the city has starved neighborhood schools of needed resources, in preparation for closures and turnarounds to come.

These efforts will be critical in the struggles to come. The teachers and their union recognize that the strike, as important as it was, is only one part of a long-term fight for the future of public education.

The next battle will come soon, as Emanuel and the city--no doubt fired by the desire for revenge--unveil the final shape of their rumored plans to shut down or turn as many as 100 schools. The solidarity of September will have to be mobilized again for this next stage of the struggle.

But because of the teachers' victory, our side will be stronger. The strike proved that there is an alternative to the bipartisan agenda of austerity and scapegoating. And it taught the most important lesson of all for working people: Sometimes you can fight City Hall--and win.

That wasn't lost on some Chicago unions facing contract negotiations with the city. "The teachers taught us you can get what you want, and it also sent a message to all the politicians that you're not going to bully us no more," said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly.

As school reform critic Diane Ravitch wrote, "The strike is one of the few weapons available to the powerless. Without the union, the teachers would have been ignored, and the politicians would be free to keep on reforming them again and again and again. The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful."

That's a lesson that the working-class movement and social struggles everywhere in the U.S. can take to heart as we build resistance to a world of poverty, war and austerity--and put forward our vision of a society that puts people before profits and power.

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