“Our working conditions are your child's learning conditions.”
– Slogan from Chicago Teachers’ Strike
The 29,000-strong Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is on strike for the first time since 1987. Pickets went up outside 675 schools on Monday, September 10. It is both the first teachers strike in a big city in six years and the biggest public sector fight since the “Battle of Wisconsin” in early 2011.
This strike is a response to years of unrelenting corporate attacks on public education in general, and particularly on teachers and their unions. While the threat of a strike had brought some concessions from Chicago's arrogant mayor, Rahm Emanuel, the two sides remained deadlocked over the union's demands for lower class size, protecting teachers' health benefits, and particularly over job security for teachers at closed schools and Emanuel's determination to introduce a new evaluation system for teachers based on standardized test scores.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has experienced a budget crisis since the beginning of the recession and, like other cities, has to grapple with overwhelming poverty which contributes to a high dropout rate. Emanuel proposed to address these issues by lengthening teachers’ work day by 20%, tying teacher performance to standardized testing, and opening Chicago to as many non-union charter schools as possible. Under his leadership the city re-routed millions of dollars last year in order to avoid giving teachers any raises.
The CTU has responded with demands for smaller class sizes, restoring art and music classes, maternity leave, and halting further plans to close over 100 community schools. By putting students first and reaching out to parents, the CTU is exposing the dirty truth that corporate education reformers so badly want to hide – teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions – they are intrinsically linked together. Teachers and their unions, like other public sector workers, are best positioned to defend the interests of our public services.
Socialist Alternative extends its full support to the Chicago Teachers Union in its strike for just demands. We call on all our supporters to participate in solidarity demonstrations and help in every way possible.
It is vital to this struggle, and future struggles, that the labor movement, the Occupy movement and the rest of the 99% rally to support the Chicago teachers. A victory would be an inspiration to teachers and other unions around the country to fight for their students and communities. It would also strike an important blow to the whole corporate education agenda. But a defeat would increase the pace of attacks working people are facing on our jobs, homes, communities and social services.
Other unions should help this strike with resolutions of support, donations to the strike fund and by building solidarity demonstrations throughout the country. Working with the unions, Occupy groups should organize marches and demonstrations linking this strike to the battle against the 1% in their community – against school closings and tuition hikes. Instead, we need to tax the super-rich and big business!
Emanuel, Obama, and the Corporate Education Agenda
The drastic policies demanded by Mayor Emmanuel and CPS are part of the broader education agenda of Emanuel and Obama that dates back to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.
Using high-stakes testing to determine the relative success of schools and teachers hides the criminal lack of funding that most urban public schools experience. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s “Race to the Top” both implicate teachers when their students do not perform on standardized tests, rather than looking at the atmosphere of the school, the funding it receives, and the support that students get. The Chicago Teachers Union is rejecting this logic. The union argues that a healthy learning environment means a less stressful work environment for teachers, cleaner and better repaired schools, enough guidance counselors, and a variety of programs that contribute to a positive learning environment. It does not mean metal detectors, gun toting police officers roaming the halls, and 40 students to a classroom designed for 28.
Race to the Top also accelerated the drive to link teacher pay and evaluation to standardized test scores. Emanuel wants to base up to 40% of a teacher's evaluation on these highly dubious performance measures and then fire "the underperforming” en masse. The union estimates that within two years 30% of their members could be fired under this new system. This is a major attack on teachers, and therefore students, too. Of course, the point here is not to improve education but to create a reign of terror for teachers.
The final solution for corporate leaders - whether they be Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Democratic U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan - is to privatize public education. Obama’s Race to the Top specifically made more money available for states to close public schools and open charter schools. This is a further blow to public education. Charter schools run by for-profit private companies do not have to answer to parent or student groups, nor do they have to answer to an elected school board. Private for-profit corporations will not run charter schools in students' interest; they will run them to maximize corporate profits. Charter schools are also an attack on teachers’ unions because most charter schools are non-union. Furthermore, any private group can apply for a charter from the state to set up a school, but the unelected nature of the leadership of chartered schools is an attack on the democratic ability of communities to have a say in how public schools are run.
The Chicago Public Schools are massively underfunded. The CPS spends $8,000 per year per student, while schools in the suburbs nearby spend up to $24,000. The CPS last year did not have textbooks for many students until the sixth week of classes. Art and music programs were cut. Local schools closed. Some students are still using text books from 1986. Yet, Mayor Emanuel and the CPS are further cutting funding.
A Crucial Public Sector Fight
Public sector unions have been the target of the politicians for years, but the focus has intensified since the recession of 2008. As capitalists saw their investment opportunities diminish, and their ability to squeeze more out of their debt laden workers, they turned to a revenue stream they’ve always had their eyes on – public funding for schools and services.
While private sector workers have been hit hard by the recession and the anti-union drive by employers, politicians representing the ruling elite have ramped up attacks on public sector workers who have been better able to hold on to a living wage. In recent years, Socialist Alternative had pointed to this looming conflict predicting that an important fight-back would develop among public sector employees and teachers, which was confirmed in February 2011 when the battle of Wisconsin erupted against Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public sector workers.
This time, the battle is not with a Republican, but with a Democrat. And not just any Democrat - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was recently President Obama’s Chief of Staff. He took a turn running the Democratic Leadership Council, and he is now one of the main fundraisers for the Obama re-election campaign. He is calling up hedge fund managers asking for donations for the Obama campaign, the very same hedge fund managers who have profited from setting up charter schools!
This situation starkly exposes the corporate nature of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party's policies are directly driven by corporate think-tanks and corporate interests. Privatizing public education and other public services reduces taxes on the rich and boosts corporate profits. Seriously weakening public sector unions is a necessary step to achieve this.
Emanuel and the CPS thought they could bulldoze over the CTU by passing a law requiring that 75% of all members (not just those voting) vote in favor of strike action before a strike could take place. But they didn’t bargain for the anger of teachers who voted by over 90% to authorize a strike, and they underestimated the new radical leadership of the union. This clearly has created an awkward contradiction for Obama and the Democratic politicians during an election season when they are trying to convince workers and union members that their administration is "worker-friendly."
This strike in Chicago is so important because it could provide a model of how unions can struggle and win. It is not an accident that this strike comes two years after a radical opposition, CORE, was elected to the leadership of the CTU. This new leadership came to power after organizing community mobilizations to stop school closures. It has brought the same mobilizing strategy to this strike. Resting on an energized and confident membership, the union has demonstrated rank-and-file activism as a powerful force. This contrasts with the top-down model adopted by so many other unions.
A victory by teachers in Chicago could set the tone for budget cuts and struggles to come. If the CTU wins a strong contract and pushes back the major attacks of the CPS, it will be a beacon to the labor movement and other movements. It will also be a ringing condemnation of the union leadership in Wisconsin that argued so vociferously against strike action. It is particularly a rebuke of the policies of Randi Weingarten, president of the CTU's parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, who has specialized in negotiating sellout contracts in city after city.
Candidates for Unions and the 99%
Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have both declared their support for Democratic Chicago Mayor Emanuel's attack on the teachers. Obama, in contrast, has “no opinion” on the strike (Chicago Sun-Times, 9/10/12). And it is difficult to find a politician, Democrat or Republican, that is publicly supporting the strike. On top of this, the corporate media is lining up to bash the CTU.
Union members, supporters of the strike, and activists should pay close attention to those politicians who oppose this strike. In speaking against the teachers' struggle, they are speaking against our children, our parents, and our communities. They are speaking for the richest 1%, corporations, privatizing public schools, and lowering all workers' wages and benefits. This shows how important it is to break from both corporate political parties and build a new political party of working people and the poor that can fight for the interests of the 99%. We should prepare now and put these anti-union, anti-public education politicians on notice.
We need to run independent candidates for city councils, state legislatures, school boards, and Congress in 2013 and 2014. This year, the campaigns of Kshama Sawant in Washington State and Jill Stein for President are steps in that direction. We need to run independent candidates who refuse to take corporate money and reject privatizing public services and help build community struggles to defend public services and workers' living standards whether they are in office or out. Independent pro-worker candidates would be an important step toward challenging the domination of the corporate ideas of both parties nationally. It would also be a step toward forming a new political party that represents working people, young people, and the poor that could break the cycle of unions supporting Democrats like Rahm Emanuel who continually betray us for their corporate masters.
The teachers' fight is crucial for ordinary people and unions throughout the U.S. It is the front line of the resistance of the 99% against the corporate agenda of the 1%. Workers across the country must band together and step up the struggle. In Chicago, please visit the picket lines, talk to teachers, students, parents, and your neighbors. Public school unions should not cross the teachers' picket lines. The power of the working class lies in the ability to shut business down, but that only works if all unions honor each others' picket lines, which will eventually come back around to help all unions and workers.
Outside of Chicago, activists should form solidarity committees where there aren’t any and help build demonstrations where they already exist. A victory of the CTU over “Rhambo” (as Chicago teachers are now calling Rahm Emanuel) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be a victory for all workers!