A short writeup of today’s CPS boycott and rally for an elected school board in Chicago.
Al Jazeera America launched this week, and today I have my first piece for the station on the impact of school closings, budget cuts, and teacher layoffs in CPS as the first day of school approaches. Read it here.
Cowritten with Jasson Perez, for In These Times.
Chicago Teachers Union delegates leave a union hall after voting to end their strike on September 18. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FEATURES » NOVEMBER 30, 2012
Democratic to the CORE
The Chicago Teachers Union’s secret to success? The rank and file are in control.
During September’s Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, local and national media rushed to frame the fight as a clash of oversized personalities: the stubborn, foul-mouthed Mayor Rahm Emanuel against the brash chemistry-teacher-turned-union president Karen Lewis. Even progressive media hyped Lewis as the driver of the union’s victory, praising her personal toughness as more than a match for Emanuel. It was classic “Great Man” historicism, tracing the strike’s origins to leaders’ personal traits.
Few accounts mentioned the constituencies behind these leaders. For Emanuel, this includes anti-union charter-school advocates, who donated $12 million toward his election. In Lewis’ case, it was the dictates of her 30,000 members. Indeed, the CTU is one of the most vibrantly democratic union locals in the United States.
Since a 2010 upheaval within the CTU, rank-and-file teachers have made up the union’s leadership, and members make many of its day-to-day decisions. Public actions are typically planned and executed by members themselves, not paid staff. And the CTU took the incredible step of extending its September strike an extra two days to ensure members had a chance to examine and debate the proposed contract.
As Lewis puts it, “We put the power into the hands of the rank and file, where it belongs.”
The Chicago Teachers Union is poised to lead in the next school-reform fights.
Chicago Public School teachers and students were back in classrooms Wednesday morning after union delegates voted Tuesday to end their seven-day strike. The union won a number of significant victories—including a provision that student test scores will count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and another that will give teachers more pay for longer school days and years. The proposed contract should be finalized and approved in the coming weeks. By almost all accounts, though, in its fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the union is emerging as the clear winner.
One of the sticking points in negotiations was over teacher evaluations and the role students’ test scores play in them. Emanuel is one of a number of national reformers who see unions as a roadblock to improving student performance and who subscribe to the philosophy that what poor, underperforming school districts need most are better teachers. Chicago teachers have emphasized throughout this fight that they want to weigh in on the education-reform debate and that their mission to do so extends far beyond an individual contract.
With a newly mobilized membership, widespread relationships with community groups, and much of the public’s trust, the Chicago Teachers Union has positioned itself to play a leading role in the debate in their city, which has an education system highly stratified between well-funded public magnet and private schools and crumbling, neighborhood-based schools—where more than 91 percent of public-school students are children of color, more than 90 percent attend hyper-segregated schools, and 82 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Their efforts could lead the way for teachers in other cities to organize in the same way.
As union delegates streamed out of their meeting Tuesday evening, many said they were elated to return to work. Teachers embraced one another in the parking lot, and supporters chanted while holding signs reading “We’re Proud of You, CTU.” Teachers also immediately began talking about how to translate the momentum from the contract victory into a broader movement. These teachers want to refocus an education-reform debate that has centered on teacher performance to one that addresses structural barriers to student achievement, including the vastly unequal resources allocated to poor students and students of color in public schools throughout the country. Education reformers have cast teachers’ unions as a problem for urban public-school students; the Chicago union wants to present itself as a solution.
Parents had been on the teachers’ side in large numbers during the fight. They formed a support organization, Parents 4 Teachers, in early 2012 to back the teachers’ contract goals and show that they did not view teachers and their union as enemies. An active Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign mobilized community members who weren’t parents to support the union. Community groups like the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and the Grassroots Collaborative took key roles in organizing marches and town-hall meetings.
These relationships were not hastily thrown together to give a veneer of neighborhood-based union support. They were based on long-term relationships developed since the Congress of Rank and File Educators (CORE) took control of the union’s leadership in 2010 and emphasized in their platform opposition to school closures and encroaching privatization through the opening of new charter schools—reforms pushed for years under Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Public Schools CEO (now Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan—and strong relationships with community and parent organizations. While the teachers are legally limited to striking over economic issues, Karen Lewis and the rest of the union’s leaders insisted from the beginning of the contract negotiations that their fight extended past what could be won in a contract.
“That contract only governs a portion of what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for public education itself,” says Eric Skalinder, a delegate and music teacher at Kelly High School in Brighton Park, a poor, mostly Mexican neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Skalinder is looking to the union’s allies for direction in the union’s next fights. “These community partners and parent alliances are new,” he says. “We’ve never been more mobilized or unified. We have to focus that energy on fighting privatization, advocating for neighborhood schools, all of it.”
It’s school closures, in particular, that union delegates and community organizations are concerned about. Mayor Emanuel has proposed closing 80 to 120 public schools and opening 60 charter schools in their stead, seen by many as a not-so-subtle scheme to weaken teachers unions and push privatization. Outside the union hall in an industrial district of Chinatown where delegates met, Kirstie Shanley, an occupational therapist at Walt Disney Magnet School, says the end of contract negotiations should lead to a quick shift in the mobilization to fight those closures.
“The community, clinicians, parents, teachers—they all need to be there when there’s a closing,” Shanley says. “Rahm and [Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude] Brizard have to be aware that every time they announce a school closing to turn it into a charter, we’re ready to mobilize and fight back.” She says there is also significant movement on a referendum calling for an end to what she calls the “abuses” of the city’s unelected school board.
Whatever their next battle, the 26,000 teachers seem ready, as a text alert circulating among them late Tuesday night suggested: “CTU ALERT: Wear red Wednesday. Meet in your parking lot before swiping in. Everyone walks in TOGETHER. This is the beginning.”