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September 2012, Week 2

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Wed, 12 Sep 2012 20:04:12 -0400
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Chicago Teachers Push Back Against Neoliberal Education
Reform
Matthew Cunningham-Cook 
September 11, 2012 
http://www.thenation.com/article/169859/chicago-teachers-push-back-against-neoliberal-education-reform

Picket lines can be sordid affairs. When a union is on
strike or locked out--like the recent Caterpillar strike
in Joliet, Illinois or the Cooper Tire & Rubber lockout
in Ohio--the smell of receding worker power can permeate
the air. The air in Chicago has none of that. At schools
across the city, 29,000 Chicago teachers and education
professionals are on strike--demanding both a fair union
contract and a radically different vision of school
reform than that propagated by nearly the entire
nation's political class. At the largest teachers'
strike in two decades, educators are fired up to fight
for wraparound services for students, with more school
social workers, counselors and psychologists; a holistic
educational environment where all students have access
to school libraries, world languages, art, music,
physical education; and the preservation of the tenure
system--because good teachers are made through experience
in the classroom.

The corporate media's initial dispatches on this fight
have been disappointing. Instead of reporting on what
the Chicago Teachers Union's vision for education is
(explained quite clearly here), they have instead zeroed
in on the CTU's demand for a 20 percent wage increase
(which corresponds to a 20 percent increase in their
workweek) and the so-called "personal feud" between CTU
President Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Along these same lines, media reports have emphasized
the "dire" fiscal situation of the Chicago public
schools--failing to note that the Chicago district spent
$25 million on strike contingency plans, that the
schools could gain $43 million if the city stopped
providing slush funds for wealthy developers or that the
state recently gave a $528 million tax break to the
owners of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

This strike is the product of twenty years of "education
reform" practiced on the backs of Chicago's students and
teachers. As the city witnessed the social destruction
that accompanied high-stakes testing and mass school
closures in neighborhoods already deprived of resources,
a small group of teachers started fighting back against
the reform agenda. As education historian Diane Ravitch
observes, it was the first movement in the nation "where
teachers have stood up to DFER [Democrats for Education
Reform], Stand for Children [and] other anti-union,
pro-privatization, anti-teacher groups."

Al Ramirez was one of the co-founders of the Caucus of
Rank and File Educators (CORE). "I was working on a
movie about school closures, and we began posing the
question, What do we do about it?" Ramirez's group
started book study groups, hosted public events with
education activists and ultimately came to realize that
the union was "ineffective at fighting back." That's
when they began to ask themselves, "What kind of union
do we want?"

The answer was a union founded on the principles of
member-directed communal action, mutual solidarity and
systemic analysis. CORE began having meetings on a
consistent basis, including a biweekly potluck at Karen
Lewis's house, as well as doing the kind of organizing
against school closures that the old-guard leadership of
the CTU simply was not doing. The former CTU president,
Marilyn Stewart, failed to appear at meetings where
school closure decisions were made.

The policy of school closures for schools considered
failing was a policy initially propagated by Mayor
Richard Daley and his longtime schools chief and current
Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Renaissance 2010
program, as it was called, closed schools in some of the
city's poorest neighborhoods, especially where there was
nearby competition from charter schools.

The current financial secretary of the CTU, Kristine
Mayle, won election in 2010 on the slate led by Lewis.
She had gotten involved as a result of a school closure
as well--a thread that unites most of the original
members of CORE.

"My school was set for closure, and we called our
delegate, and she said 'get your resume together.' We
wanted to force them to stand up for us, and we realized
we were better equipped to do it than they were. CTU
back in the day used to be a fighting union, it had
become a service model or company union, and we wanted
to change that up," Mayle said. The rejection of the
service model by CTU's new leadership is reflective of a
long debate in the labor movement--should unions serve
their members, existing as an organization outside of
the membership, or should the union be made by the
members?

This is partly why the media's focus on Lewis is so
problematic; her leadership is more of an
anti-leadership. A central goal of the CTU now is to
have members take control of their union and their
workplaces. As a result of this strategy, back in June,
90 percent of the membership, including 98 percent of
those who actually cast a ballot, voted in favor of
authorizing a strike. Under the new leadership, an
internal organizing department was created with seven
staff members and the union's House of Delegates was
expanded to include at least one delegate from every
building.

For too long at the CTU, the folks at CORE felt that
union policy was directed by a tiny group of highly paid
bureaucrats who had little connection to the actual
conditions on the ground. What's funny is that this
directly correlates to the situation at Chicago Public
Schools in general. Rahm Emanuel complains about teacher
salaries, even though his own salary is $216,000 per
year. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has
never taught a day in a Chicago public school. The
Chicago Board of Education president is a banker, and
one of its members is the powerful billionaire Hyatt
heiress Penny Pritzker.

On the picket line, there is a palpable sense that the
teachers who created the fighting-est teachers union in
the country are about to do the same to their school
system. The city is awash in red, and honks in favor of
the strikers are cacophonous. Reuters recently quoted a
spokesman for Stand for Children Illinois, a
pro-education reform group that is a favorite charity of
hedge fund managers, saying, "Teachers need to decide if
they're going to be part of this [reform] process or
not." They have, but it's going to be on the terms of
the 99%

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