How Chicago's teachers won

Tina Beacock is a socialist long active in Chicago, and now a retired member of the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU). She spoke to Solidarity about the recent Chicago teachers' dispute.

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Chicago teachers struck between 10 and 18 September. The union reports that the strike won wage rises, and in addition: "This fight produced many wins - from the right to appeal a rating, to language that gives teachers control over our own lesson plan format. Equally important, we stopped many harmful 'reforms'.

"The district was forced to give up on merit pay, made to abandon a 7 hour 40 minute teacher day, and gave ground on test-based evaluation".

Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who was previously Barack Obama's chief of staff) made a concession in his plan for a longer school day, which originally would have meant teachers working 20% extra time with no increase in pay. Now, the agreement requires that laid-off teachers will be re-hired to cover the extra time.

"When CORE was elected to office in 2010", Tina said, "it inherited a top-heavy organisation. From being a small activist group of teachers and allies which could call marches of hundreds, it was now faced with running the largest union local in the state - some 26,000 members".

CORE, a rank and file caucus within the CTU formed in 2008, had won control of the union, but as a result many of its leading activists had become full-time union elected officers and staff.

Like many other US unions, the CTU has a higher ratio of full-time officials to members than unions in other countries: about 50 full-time staff for a membership of 26,000 teachers and support staff, serving 400,000 students. Most support staff are in the CTU, but some are in other unions, such as the SEIU, which had settled before the CTU struck. [In England, the NUT has about 240 full-time staff, and 120 members on full facility time, for 325,000 members].

"Decisions in the union are made by monthly meetings of delegates from the 600 schools in the system.

"Unlike previous CTU caucuses, the CORE leadership pulled in people from other caucuses into campaigns, committee leaderships and union staff jobs. They ran workshops on how to organise a contract campaign. They used PD [teachers' training courses] to invite speakers like Diane Ravitch, a critic of high-stakes testing.

"The CTU leadership carried out a plan to educate and mobilise the ranks of the union. It made sure that every school had union delegates, and they also organised mobilisation committees in every school in addition to the delegates.

"To do this, they set up an organizing department, to involve the broadest number of members. They organised actions with community organisations, other unions, and Occupy Chicago against TIFs (tax give-aways to corporations by the city).

"They used a more democratic kind of organising. They used tools from the Labor Notes toolbox, launching a a contract campaign which included tactics like red T-shirt days".

[Labor Notes is a cross-union rank-and-file newsletter published in the USA, which also organises conferences and publishes pamphlets. It has long been supported by the socialist group Solidarity].

In the face of anti-union laws requiring a vote of 75% of all members to be able to strike, and 90-day waiting periods, the CTU called a strike authorisation vote in May - and got a resounding 98% yes (90% of eligible voters).

A May 23 rally and march, a week after NATO demonstrations in the city, mobilized over 6,000, almost one union member in four. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly Barack Obama's chief of staff, was stunned. When a mediator came back with recommendations the teachers get a 15% raise, he ignored the mediator.

"During the strike, there were bulletins and rallies every day. This level of mobilisation had a major impact, raising morale and getting people to work with each other.

"Students mobilised in support of the teachers at the Board of Education, and there were students and parents on all the picket lines. There was visible support for the CTU everywhere in the city. CTU members initiated actions, like picketing aldermen who'd opposed the strike; hundreds of members converged on the Hyde Park site where Penny Pritzker’s Hyatt just took a giant TIF grant and robbed our schools of millions of dollars.

"The strike bulletins documented the flowering of solidarity all over the city; a google-map on the union's website showed the national and international support. Travelling around the city in CTU red, you were saluted as part of a popular army.

"For members, the union has become something they do, not someone they call.

"School restructuring, privatisation, and closures are one of the big issues behind the dispute. In the name of 'reform', Chicago has been leading the national attack on teachers and public education since the 1995 law which curtailed basic union rights and handed Mayor Daley control to appoint the School Board.

"One part of this pincer movement was the federal No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2002, which mandated that schools and whole cities lose funding if they did not turn around schools, and reach the goal that all students in each school would test at or above average. [Democrats and Republicans cosponsoring this law were not tested on their knowledge of the word 'average'.]

"The new law passed under Obama's aegis, Race to the Top, is if anything worse - it compels states to compete for federal funds, based on how thoroughly they implement various measures including 'teacher accountability', paving the way for merit pay. The introduction of standardised testing of students, like statistical control in manufacturing, gives a criterion for whom to fire.

The Chicago Board of Education has been closing schools for low test scores longer than in other cities, and Chicago has more charter schools [like Michael Gove's free schools] than any other city except New Orleans [where after Hurricane Katrina, teachers at 75% of the city's schools were terminated, and now the majority of students are in charter schools].

"This has resulted in the shrinking of union membership from 35,000 in 2002 to 26,000 today. Schools can vary in size up to 4200 at Lane Tech, but most are smaller, with an average of 1500 students in high schools and 200-500 in elementary schools. Now schools are getting smaller partly because of the insane testing.

"If you don't pass the tests in 8th grade [age 13-14], you just don't get to high school. Every school has an incentive to reject students, in order to keep up its test averages and avoid turnaround. Now you have student push-outs, not drop-outs.

"Since 2002 the city has been closing down schools for bad performance, firing all the staff, making them re-apply for their jobs.

"After I was terminated when the city closed the school I was working at, I had two and a half years working as a substitute teacher. I was never placed in a new regular job. That's not atypical for many veteran teachers.

"The racist character of this assault is clear, too. As schools with low scores, schools where it is most challenging to teach, have been closed and teachers dismissed, the number of Black teachers has declined from 45% of the workforce in the 90s to 19% today. This occurs in a system where 92% of the students are children of colour. Some displaced teachers became CORE activists".

The previous time the old guard leadership of the Chicago Teachers' Union was ousted by a militant opposition didn't turn out so well. That was PACT, a militant reform movement but not a class-conscious one. It campaigned for union democracy – and to be equal partners in reform, not its target.

"Debbie Lynch of PACT won the union presidency in 2001, partly because PACT organised against the 1995 Amendatory Act, which prohibited negotiating over everything from class size to teacher discipline, and eliminated seniority. In 2002 the Board of Education led by CEO Arne Duncan started closing schools for bad performance, not just for falling rolls. Debbie Lynch negotiated a bad contract in 2003. She agreed to classic black-box bargaining – don't tell the members anything - and accepted the lie that parents and the public couldn't be won to support the teachers. The old guard regained control of the CTU in 2004".

But CORE had a different approach. "CORE organised lots of demonstrations against school closures - demonstrations of maybe 500 or 1000 people. Its meetings drew in community members and union activists interested in schools as well as teachers, creating some interesting combinations.

"CORE was started by Jackson Potter, who lost his job when his school was closed. When he and Al Ramirez made a video about school closings, they reached out to other class-conscious activists in the CTU and started organising against school closures. This group included newer teachers who'd been hired to give their all to teaching, quickly disillusioned by their treatment at the hands of Chicago Public Schools [CPS],as well as more senior teachers, some with experience in PACT.

"CORE includes activists with a class-struggle perspective. The CTU's actions have been energetically backed by supporters of the socialist group Solidarity, and of the ISO [International Socialist Organization, a group previously linked to the SWP in Britain but excluded by the SWP from its international network in 2001].

"You have to do thirty-four and a half years as a teacher to get a full pension, but half of starting teachers quit after five years in the classroom. Teaching can be wonderfully rewarding - and, without the necessary support, incredibly stressful. It's telling that one significant gain of this strike was, a provision to stop bullying – of teachers by administrators.

"The CTU victory will have a far-ranging effect, first of all by throwing a wrench into the wheels of the bipartisan neo-liberal educational “reform” agenda. Both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were quick to voice support to Emanuel against the greedy teachers' strike.

"Rahm Emanuel's attack on teachers, and the appearance of union-busting Michelle Rhee at the Charlotte Democratic convention, could not make clearer the bipartisan nature of these attacks. While a majority of teachers in Chicago, as elsewhere, are politically mostly Democrats, the clash with Rahm Emanuel has produced some rethinking about labour’s political choices.

"At the Saturday rally, the chant "Karen for Mayor" was heard [Karen Lewis is the president of the CTU]. And others carried signs that said, Democratic Party, where are you? and Obama, where are you? Statements from the White House affirmed that Obama was neutral on this strike in his home town. "

The strike by itself did not resolve all the issues it raised. First and foremost, the Mayor and CPS CEO Jean-Paul Brizard have continued to declare their intentions to close 100 schools this year. Demands for smaller class-sizes, social services and other supports in the schools, and art, music, and libraries for all , have raised hopes without yet winning concessions.

"Still, the CTU made a dramatic change in the balance of forces in this city - through mobilisation and education. People have been comparing the Chicago struggle with Wisconsin [where a Republican governor slashing union bargaining rights for state workers led to months-long massive protests]. The difference is that in Chicago we haven't been defeated. This might be the struggle that begins to turn the tide, that sets the stage for a new momentum of struggle".