|Teachers at Healy Elementary in Bridgeport receive support from motorists during the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.|
It seems as though Chicago is reaping a ton of bad karma lately. The actions of the Police Department are playing out on a national stage and are now the focus of a Justice Department Investigation. Rahm Emanuel’s carefully crafted national narrative as a take-charge, no-nonsense mayor has gone up in flames of the flash paper on which it was drafted. As I type this, protesters have blocked Congress Parkway demanding further justice in the police murders of LaQuan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. The drumbeat for the resignations of Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez grow louder.
Amid all this, another chicken has come home to roost. The Chicago Teachers Union began voting today on a strike authorization. Odds are solid that, if you’re the parent of a Chicago Public Schools student, you’ll be looking for a babysitter in a few short months. Those of you reading this thinking, “didn’t they just strike a while back?” and wondering why they may walk out again, haven’t been paying attention to how the mayor and his allies have treated the teachers union since signing that 2012 contract.
Here are the Cliff’s Notes: almost immediately after settling the strike, Emanuel and the Chicago School Board orchestrated the closing of 50 neighborhood schools, the largest mass public school closures in American history. CPS laid off teachers in each of the years following the strike, citing a need to balance the system’s budget. The district increased class sizes, added an hour to the school day and cut funding and services at neighborhood schools, effectively making teachers glorified babysitters. The “safe passage” program intended to protect students making the trek from shuttered schools to schools outside of their neighborhoods was met with varying results, and incidents of violence in the safe passage zones.
Meanwhile, the school board asked for—and received—the maximum property tax levy allowable to help balance its budgets and promptly pissed it away. It’s dipped into capital expenses and used voodoo economics to present balanced budgets to City Council. Public resources that could have been used to strengthen neighborhood schools continued to be funneled to charter schools and IB programs which perform as well, if not worse, than district schools. Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme related to a no-bid contract. Conflicts of interest have arisen with members of the mayor’s hand-picked school board and companies (in which they have a vested financial stake) doing business with the district. Debt swapping schemes initiated by former school board chair David Vitale have eroded CPS’ bond rating. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who emerged from the 2012 strike as one of the most hawkish anti-union agitators, offered CPS pension relief in exchange for a property tax freeze, union busting measures, limits on public workers’ rights to compensation and a new education funding formula one can safely assume won’t work out in the neighborhood schools’ favor.
Yet, CTU is seen as the villain by some. As with most Chicago political landmines, it’s rooted in racism. From the Wilson wagons of the 1960s to the voluntary busing programs of the late 1970s, Chicago Public Schools has reflected the hyper-segregation of the city proper. We see and hear black CPS students speaking in stilted language and we crow they aren’t “getting the education my tax dollars are supposed to be funding.” We see mostly black and Hispanic teachers picketing and protesting and assume they should shut the fuck up, be thankful they weren’t among the layoffs and get back to work. CTU president Karen Lewis, who managed to whip a previously disorganized rank and file into a unified force, and still remains the only labor leader to beat Emanuel at the bargaining table, is viciously attacked for her gender, her race, her appearance and her politics.
Organized labor has been under siege for years, teacher unions especially. We’ve been trained as a society over the decades to beatify teachers for doing the Lord’s Work in teaching Johnny to read, but condemn teachers unions as the root cause of why Johnny isn’t reading at his grade level. CPS failed to meet the pension payment obligations it agreed to under previous contracts with CTU for years, but it’s the teachers union that’s seen as a greedy drain on resources. That plotline is once again rearing its matted, rotten head.
Here is what CPS is offering CTU in its current negotiations: a 7 percent pay cut over three years; eliminating the lane and step compensation system for teachers; and massive increases to health care and pension contributions. CPS will not budge on decreasing class sizes, will not cut standardized testing and won’t discuss a lack of wraparound services and clinicians at neighborhood schools. The combination of the pay cut and increased teacher contributions to healthcare and pension payments would amount to teachers actually seeing a 17-20 percent cut in average salary over the course of a proposed four-year deal.
Emanuel, who's waged a war on public education since his first inauguration, is already working to shape the discussion in the public eye. He’s made the media rounds bellowing that a strike authorization vote “distracts from the solution.” Emanuel is a plutocrat who aligns closer to Rauner than the common man, so knowing how organized labor works may be a stretch for him. A union’s power is in its ability to withhold work. Unions don’t look to strike; they’re fighting for an equitable labor system. CTU knows first-hand what obstacles stand between your children and the quality education the city is supposed to provide. And the union isn’t one of them.
The last time CTU voted to authorize a strike, it had widespread support from the public. Things haven’t improved in the past three years and I’m certain they’ll find solidarity from those of us who remember when a quality education could be obtained in a Chicago public school.