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PORTSIDE  September 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE September 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Behind the Chicago Teachers Strike

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Date:

Mon, 10 Sep 2012 21:42:02 -0400

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Behind the Chicago Teachers Strike 

by Theresa Moran

Labornotes

September 10, 2012

http://labornotes.org/2012/09/behind-chicago-teachers-strikeTheresa Moran | 

Photo: Lauren McCadney.

Chicago teachers are on strike today to demand smaller
classes, much-needed student services, and stability
for a profession that's battling a corporate takeover.

Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, said
with regret that the union had no choice. "We must do
things differently in this city if we're going to
provide students with the education they so rightfully
deserve," she said.

With throngs of red-shirted union members flanking the
doors, CTU officers emerged stoically from the union
office at 10 p.m. last night to announce the strike,
which came after nine months of contentious
negotiations with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his
appointed school board.

Not a half hour before, school board President David
Vitale was visibly shaking as he announced that talks
had broken down. He emphasized the concessions the
board had made on economic issues, saying, "This should
satisfy most of their needs." He claimed the board was
unsure what more teachers wanted.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey made clear, however,
that for the union, it wasn't about money in teachers'
pockets. Lewis said the two sides had come very close
to agreeing on compensation.

Sharkey cited in particular a new evaluation process
that could cause 28 percent of teachers to lose their
jobs within two years. Illinois passed a new teacher
evaluation law in 2010 to qualify for federal Race to
the Top education funds. CTU says the evaluations place
too much emphasis on standardized tests, which are an
unreliable and narrow measure of a student's progress,
and are tied to a systematic privatization of public
schools.

Recall rights for teachers displaced by school closures
is another of the union's top priorities, though not an
issue they're able to strike over. By law, the teachers
can only walk out over unfair labor practices or
mandatory subjects of bargaining like wages or health
benefits.

Bargaining improved in recent weeks, the union said,
with the city withdrawing its attempt to institute
merit pay, reinstating some scheduled raises based on
education and experience, and annual raises each year
of the four-year deal instead of the initial proposal
for a one-time 2 percent bump. CTU said the city
offered 3 percent the first year and 2 percent each
following year.

Lewis said the 26,000-member union is motivated by much
more. "We don't intend to sign an agreement until all
these matters are addressed," she said.

At its core, the strike is nothing less than a faceoff
between two conflicting visions of public education.
More important than economics or the teacher
evaluations, said Sharkey, are "pedagogical issues"
like small class sizes; a curriculum of language, art,
music, and physical education for all students; and
nursing and social-work services inside schools to
address the many needs that poor students bring to the
schoolhouse door--and that hurt academic performance
when left unaddressed. On the Line

A constant chorus of horns blared in support as
teachers and students alike joined a steadily growing
picket line this morning at Roosevelt High School in
Albany Park, one of 675 lines across the city.

Teenagers stood with their teachers and cheered, waving
signs and wielding noisemakers.

Roosevelt is a designated CPS "holding center" where
students can go for food and supervision between 8:30
a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Several police stood by the school
entrance to watch the few who came.

While teachers raised issues from evaluations to school
privatization to class size to explain why they backed
the strike, they were in solid agreement on one thing:
public education in Chicago is not working and Mayor
Emanuel is making things worse.

English teacher Keith Plum says he's sick of teaching
to the test. "It's always some big corporation selling
a canned curriculum that's never been tested," he said,
adding that he was told he'd be punished if he deviated
from the curriculum's script.

Plum recalls a sophomore who, three weeks into the
school year, raised her hand to ask, "When are going to
do some real English work?" A New Direction

Emanuel and the school board say the best way to deal
with struggling public schools is to close them or turn
them over to private charter operators.

The problem they see isn't a lack of resources or a
"drill-and-kill" test-based curriculum, but bad
teachers. The solution is to use students' standardized
test scores to identify--and then get rid of--both
schools and teachers who are "failing." Job protections
like tenure and seniority rights, to education
privatizers, are roadblocks on the path to wiping out
public schools.

The corporate plan for education is not just about
ideology, however. It's also about money. Charter
schools can be lucrative investment opportunities, and
glitzy new charters are placed in gentrifying
neighborhoods, serving as a magnet for newcomers while
excluding local children.

Eliminating job protections and evaluating teachers
based on student test scores is also about saving
money, says high school teacher Adam Heenan, "designed
to make teachers cheap" by firing experienced
educators. Another money-saving move is alternative
teacher certification programs like Teach for America
that guarantee a steady supply of brand-new teachers,
trained for just a few weeks before they're in front of
a class. Most leave the job after a few years.

Lewis says the revolving door of teachers is bad for
kids, who often have chaotic home lives plagued by
hunger, homelessness, and violence. "Job security is
stability for our students," she argued.

The union singles out poverty as one of the biggest
roadblocks to academic achievement. CTU has insistently
pointed to disparities within the city, particularly
the lack of resources in schools serving low-income
Black and Latino students. The union says 160 schools
have no library, and many lack playgrounds.

Problems in the schools themselves, the union argues,
can be solved by fully funding them, providing a rich
curriculum and the wraparound services students need.
Class size matters, too. Kindergarten and first-grade
classrooms in Chicago are bigger than those in 95
percent of all Illinois schools, according to the CTU's
research.

"How can we learn with a classroom of 50 kids in it
with not enough books or materials?" asked Marta
Aguirre, a senior at Roosevelt High School, who was
walking the picket line with her teachers this morning.

She says she once had a class so packed that students
had to sit on the floor. Closures Key

The strike has been "a long time coming," Heenan said.

The conflict has its roots in the push to privatize
Chicago schools, which began in the late 1990s and was
turbocharged by former Mayor Richard Daley's
"Renaissance 2010" plan. Carried out with zeal by Arne
Duncan, former Chicago schools chief and now President
Obama's secretary of education, the plan closed more
than 100 schools, replacing them with charters.

In many cases Duncan allowed multiple schools to
operate under a single charter to skirt legal limits on
the number of charters permitted in the city.

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators, whose members
currently occupy the union's leadership slots, formed
in 2008 when teacher activists fed up with school
closures started fighting back.

At first, they lobbied the union to get involved. When
the leadership at the time didn't share their activist
approach, they began organizing themselves. The group
developed strong ties to community groups, partnering
with them to save several schools from closure. With a
track record of success, the group grew quickly and won
union office in 2010.

Rahm Emanuel continued Daley's tornado of closures and
privatizations when he took over last year, targeting
another 21 schools in December. Indeed, the fight
against school closures has only gotten harder. Even
the occupation of a local elementary school earlier in
the year by parents was not enough to prevent its
shuttering. The onslaught only promises to get worse.

The union took another hit with passage of a state law
in May 2011 that chipped away at seniority rights, made
it harder for teachers to gain tenure, and said the
Chicago teachers couldn't strike unless 75 percent of
members voted yes. CTU was the only local union singled
out by the legislature for this requirement. Practice
Makes Perfect

While years of abuse from elected officials primed the
CTU membership for drastic action, preparing for the
strike took months of methodical organizing.

Contract negotiations began last November and, even
before sitting down to the table, the union set to work
organizing contract action committees in each of the
city's more than 600 schools. Committee members were
responsible for keeping a team of co-workers--with the
lofty goal of one committee member for every five
staff--informed on bargaining issues. Committees at each
school in turn reported to volunteers responsible for
communication with all schools in a small territory.

The goal was "to develop the leadership of people who
could take responsibility if a job action proved
necessary," says Debby Pope, a retired Chicago teacher
who is working for the union.

All the work to build mobilizing structures in the
schools paid off when members realized by the spring
that bargaining was going nowhere. The board was
proposing to eviscerate already inadequate class-size
protections, institute a 20 percent longer school day
without a proportional increase in pay, do away with
raises for experience and education in favor of merit
pay, and jack up teachers' health care costs. Ensuring
adequate resources for schools was nowhere on the
agenda.

Frustrated members were ready to ratchet up the
contract campaign and start planning for a potential
strike--the local's first in 25 years.

In April, contract committees at several schools
decided on their own to hold practice strike votes to
gauge support--which they found in spades. Next, the
union polled the entire membership, to test the
structure's ability to coordinate logistics on a large
scale. Ninety percent backed a strike in the informal
poll.

Shortly after, 4,000 members filled an auditorium to
capacity for a rally, before joining thousands of
supporters for a march on Chicago's Mercantile
Exchange, where they protested the $77 million a year
subsidy the derivatives marketplace receives from the
state.

City officials have said they seek concessions because
the schools face a $665 million deficit this year and a
bigger one next year. But CTU says the city could find
the money to fix schools if it wanted to, noting that
Chicago pumps $250 million a year into development
projects backed by political cronies and downtown
business interests.

To meet the threshold set by the new anti-union law,
the union needed 75 percent of members to approve a
strike. Ninety-eight percent of those voting gave their
enthusiastic "yes."

Over the summer, the union brought in several dozen
teacher and paraprofessional members to work as
organizers, making sure their colleagues stayed
connected to the union and up to date on bargaining
through the break.

When a third of the schools opened their doors in
mid-August, the union held informational pickets to
educate parents and give members a sense of what a
picket line might feel like.

At Curie Metro High, where Adam Heenan works, staff
broke up into teams of 10 responsible for supporting
and keeping each other informed on the line.

"People were already so fed up that even though a
strike was scary they weren't horrified by the idea,"
said Jen Johnson, a history teacher at Lincoln Park
High School. "We're organizationally, mentally, and
emotionally prepared." The Boss Prepares, Too

The city has made its own preparations for a strike,
allocating $25 million for a contingency plan. The city
is spending the money keeping 145 schools open for four
hours a day, providing food and daycare.

The union has questioned whether this is money well
spent. The facilities are being run by clergy and staff
from the district's central office--people with no
educational or childcare background. A manual for those
working the holding centers instructs them to play
games like "Simon says" and to "communicate with
words."

CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin called the plan "the
equivalent of opening a fire station without
firefighters and giving a bunch of lawyers,
accountants, and clerical workers a few fire hoses and
rubber boots."

Ironically, the manuals draw attention to poor building
conditions teachers are raising.

District employees are warned to dress for classrooms
with no air conditioners, not to count on having a
refrigerator or microwave available, and to be prepared
to come early and leave late.

___________________________________________

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