Chicago schools may be in recess soon if the city doesn’t bargain in good faith with its teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) filed a ten-day strike notice Wednesday, August 29. Meaning under Illinois law they could legally begin striking after most schools enter their second week of classes.
In June, members voted in historic numbers to authorize a strike —around 90% of members voted, with 98% of voters voting in favor. This overcame a recently passed anti-union law that raised the minimum requirement for a strike to 75%. The law was passed under the direction of Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, whose supporters thought no union as large as CTU’s 32,000 members could possibly meet the 75% benchmark.
Debby Pope, a retired teacher and current CTU delegate, said the law was so clearly oppressive that it had the unintended consequence of “helping galvanize and mobilize members.”
Whether CTU members actually strike depends on if the board of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Mayor Emanuel agree to negotiate on more of CTU’s issues. The board has refused to negotiate thus far on items such as lower class sizes, more social workers and nurses, and more art, music, computer, and P.E. classes.
Merit pay is another crucial issue. The board wants to pay teachers based on student test scores rather than teachers’ experience and education levels. CTU opposes merit pay saying “The vast majority of evidence from large-scale experimentation in merit pay shows no benefit to student achievement. Tying student test scores to pay is another in a long list of test-based accountability ‘reforms’ that have skewed instruction towards test prep but not produced student achievement gains.”
Teachers hope to avoid striking, but are prepared to do so if the board continues in its refusal to move on key issues. The union has been printing thousands of picket signs and holding solidarity meetings in cities across the country. CPS is the third-largest district in the country, and large-scale support will be necessary for the success of a strike if one is called.
The solidarity meetings are meant to increase support and are a natural outgrowth of the current union leadership’s emphasis on member power and community.
Members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ran for CTU office in 2010 on a social unionism platform. Social unionism emphasizes organizing members in the workplace as well as working with other groups on social justice issues that transcend the workplace. CORE won, thus beginning the transformation of what had been a classic top-down business union into a member-driven union connected to the larger community.
At a meeting in Milwaukee on August 27, Pope spoke about how members organized themselves and gained widespread support.
CORE “wanted to get members off the idea that a union is a consumer item, the idea that you pay dues and things get done for you,” said Pope. “In order to be truly strong, the members need to be involved.”
Activists set up an organizing department to organize their own members. All schools have delegates that meet regularly and vote. They also established contract action committees, a group of people from the various schools who are “willing to take whatever legal action necessary to get a contract,” such as “calling up people to get them on the picket line the next morning.” In the event of a strike, delegates will serve as strike captains.
CTU also reached out to the local community, providing support and resources to other groups working on socio-economic issues. These connections helped form the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee, a group of parents, students, Occupy activists, and members of unions such as American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU), and National Association of Letter Carriers.
Linda Loew, an AFSCME member on the Solidarity Committee, spoke to an audience of around 100 Milwaukee public school teachers and other allies about the effectiveness of collaboration. She explained that the Solidarity Committee brought out hundreds of vocal parents, students, and teachers to a school board budget meeting and organized a press conference to publicize this outcry. As a result, the board decided to postpone passing the budget.
Loew ended by asking the standing-room-only crowd at the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) office to join CTU and its allies in the streets of Chicago should a strike occur.
MTEA framed the meeting in their office as one small step in solidarity with CTU. MTEA President Bob Peterson cited CTU as a model to follow in their aspirations not to be a business union. “We’re also adopting an organizing model,” Peterson said while pointing at wall charts mapping out the Milwaukee Public Schools system.
Peterson spoke about the dangers of privatization and the importance of protecting the entire working class, including the oppressed communities public workers serve. “We need to be leaders in equal, desegregated schools.”
Like CTU members, teachers in MPS see their working conditions as crucial to their students’ educational success, and they see themselves in common cause with the larger community and the labor movement as a whole.
If there was a theme for the evening, it was the interconnectedness of all who struggle for the public good. Loew, however, pushed beyond ideas of mutual support and collaboration, advocating increased labor actions across sectors.
“The only chance for other unions to win is to go on the offensive as CTU is doing.”