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.
I’ve got a story up at The Nation about the re-election of Karen Lewis’s CORE caucus and the spread of similar social justice caucuses in teachers unions across the country. Read it here.
By March 1933, the [Chicago] teachers, owed more than six months’ pay, were demoralized by poverty, disgusted by their treatment, and disenchanted with the union leaders’ passive strategies. On March 17, MTU [one of several teachers unions in Chicago at the time] president C.L. Vestal wrote that ‘the leaders of the teacher organizations wish to do their part to keep our common boat on an even keel in spite of the storm, but the rank and file are becoming even harder to quiet…. [T]hey are putting more and more pressure on their leaders to ‘do something.'” Still, the leaders of the AFT and the CTF [Chicago Teachers Federation, a Chicago Teachers Union precursor] continued to plead with the Board of Education and acting mayor Francis J. Corr…for cash payments and to counsel patience and restraint to the teachers. … Facing financial ruin, and with the union leaders unable to deliver on their promises, teachers turned to more militant methods and to new unofficial leaders who emerged from their own ranks.
John F. Lyons, Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929-1970
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.”
I forgot to post this back during the teachers strike: Mike Konczal, who writes the absolutely fantastic financial blog Rortybomb (as well as approximately 14,000 pieces on pretty much every topic I’ve ever been interested in–see his excellent essay “Against Law, For Order” on the prison industry and the neoliberal state in Jacobin, his review of Chris Hayes’s new book for Dissent and discussion with Hayes for Bloggingheads, and this totally tubular Bloggingheads episode with Dissent editor Sarah Leonard, for starters), interviewed me and my pal/colleague Yana Kunichoff during the Chicago Teachers Union strike.
I did the interview sitting on a planter in the middle of downtown Chicago–and ironically, in the middle of it, a non-CTU protest of several hundred people marched right by me–so I feel like I maybe wasn’t at my best. (A common personal feeling.)
You can read that interview here.
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.”
A bit out of date now, since the CTU strike has now ended (and some of my reflections in this piece have proven to be a bit off, I think), but here’s my first post for The American Prospect. Another will be up soon.
Into Week Two, a Slightly Subdued Strike
Today, the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) principal decision-making body, the 700-member House of Delegates, will vote on ending the strike that erupted last week over teacher evaluations, re-hiring of laid-off teachers, and pay negotiations over the teachers’ contract that expired July 1. If the delegates vote to end the strike, Chicago schoolchildren will return to class on Wednesday, and an approval of the contract should be within sight. If it does not, Chicago teachers will stay on the picket line, and will likely face a new round of attacks from the mayor’s office.
The strike’s segue into a second week surprised many Chicagoans, who thought public school students would return to class on Monday. But after a Sunday vote, union leaders announced they needed more time to go through the specifics of the proposed contract.
“We haven’t heard enough,” says Jill Bates, who has taught Head Start at Yates Elementary on the near Northwest Side for 32 years. “I haven’t seen what we need for our schools yet. We haven’t gotten anything for the children.”
It’s a move that risks eroding the widespread public support for the union that has grown since the strike began. Last week was all about the union positioning itself as the defender of quality education for all children in the city of Chicago, with a strike as the only way to achieve goals like reduced class sizes, air conditioning in classrooms, preventing closures of neighborhood schools, and a reduced reliance on evaluations based on standardized tests. That emphasis paid off, with multiple polls finding that Chicagoans support the striking teachers over Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
On Monday, the union still emphasized its commitment to equal education, but had to shift to a focus on democracy for rank-and-file teachers, trying to publicly make the case that the continued massive inconvenience for CPS students and their parents was justified by the necessity for all of the teachers to have sufficient time to read and absorb the contract proposals. It’s easier for parents to see their scramble for childcare or hours lost at work as justified as part of a fight for better education for their kids; it’s harder to convince them that their kids should stay out of school so teachers have time to read a contract.
Luckily for the teachers, they were aided by Mayor Emanuel’s ill-advised decision to file for an injunction declaring the strike illegal to compel the teachers back to work. The decision to pursue an injunction was questionable on multiple levels, not least of which is strategic: it plays perfectly into the CTU’s characterization of Emanuel as unnecessarily hostile and combative with teachers since he took office last year—a “bully,” as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has called him multiple times. On Monday, a judge declined to rule immediately on the injunction, setting a hearing date for Wednesday morning. (The House of Delegates votes on ending the strike Tuesday night.)
Chicago Public School parents have mixed feelings about the continuation of the strike, which has kept students out of school for over a week, but most seem to oppose the mayor’s injunction. “We all wanted the schools back open—teachers, parents. But I don’t blame them for staying out,” says Maria Torres, the mother of an eight-year-old daughter who attend Galileo Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood.
She was not worried that the public will turn against the strike.
“I think the public has been thirsting for this kind of fight from unions, one that’s connected to communities. They know our schools are starved,” she said.
Near Lake Michigan in the far North Side neighborhood of Edgewater, Veronique Rackliff walked near a playground with her two children, Pia and Maximo. She took off a day of work as a social worker at a hospital because of the strike. “I support [the teachers], but couldn’t they do this some other way?” But she strongly opposed the injunction. “I really don’t agree with that,” she said.
As of midday Friday, there have been no reports of Mayor Rahm Emanuel considering the use of remote-controlled robotic policing devices to clear the streets of the striking Chicago teachers.
But just in case Rahm gets any funny ideas, he should know that those teachers have at least one mechanized strike supporter in their corner.
I encountered Strikebot on Thursday’s picket line at Lane Tech High School, scurrying around teachers’ feet near the curb on Western Ave. as an endless stream of supportive honks filled the air. Lindsay Smit and Ben Durham, physics and robotics teachers at the school, had created the robot—using no CPS money or supplies, they emphasized several times—“to walk the picket line with us.”
Smit was operating Strikebot with what looked like a Playstation controller. A sign reading “Strikebot Loves Teachers” was waving from left to right; a small gray plastic piece with two circular orange pieces that looked like eyes moved front to back like a head nodding “yes” to the question “Are Chicago teachers total badasses?” A few drops of rain started coming down, so Smit opened up Strikebot’s blue and green-plaid umbrella.
As I was examining a small crossed-out picture of Rahm Emanuel’s head, Smit pushed a button; the lever holding the picture popped out and Rahm’s head began spinning in circles–a fair robotic representation of what can only be assumed to be Emanuel’s reaction to the sea of red-clad teachers blanketing the streets of every neighborhood every day this week.
Strikebot seemed pretty chill, his function mostly relegated to morale-boosting on the picket line. But if Rahm decides to turn the teachers/CPS contract fight into open robotic street battles, my money’s on Strikebot. I mean, since last year, nobody thought the CTU would or could strike, but here we are, day five. I’m sure if you push them far enough, the teachers’ robots can be just as fierce as the educators themselves.