The Chicago Teachers Union is Poised to Lead in the Next
by Micah Uetricht
The American Prospect
September 20, 2012
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."
[Micah Uetricht has written for Salon, In These Times,
Jacobin, and TheNation.com. He lives in Chicago.]
[Many thanks for Micah Uetrict for submitting this to
Portside, to share with Portside readers.]
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