- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
The Chicago Teachers Union is going on strike tomorrow. But they aren’t going alone.
The union struck in 2012, claiming to fight not just for themselves but for a broad social justice agenda in defense of public schools and all public services. They emerged victorious over Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools, who wanted to further erode teachers’ power in the schools and institute more free market-friendly reforms. At a time when the labor movement was in dire straits, the win was an inspiration to unionists around the country.
But since then, the union has suffered defeat after defeat: forty-nine school closures, rounds of layoffs, devastating budget cuts. And Illinois’ new Republican governor, private equity mogul Bruce Rauner, has carried out a disastrous agenda of austerity, holding the state budget hostage unless legislators agree to major rollbacks of union rights.
So when teachers’ contract expired this year and they were faced with more austerity demands, they again considered striking. But this time they have joined other unions and community groups in calling for a citywide “general strike” on April 1, demanding not just a strong contract but new, “progressive” sources of revenue — taxing the city’s financial district, for example, and ending the state’s flat income tax — to fund public goods and services throughout Chicago and Illinois. The CTU and the groups allied with them are looking to win not just a moral victory against austerity, but a tangible one.
The strike will only last a day, but it’s the kind of mass political action rarely seen in American labor history. It’s also one that isn’t without risks; CPS has declared the strike illegal.
To discuss the strike and its implications, I spoke to Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Elementary, a member of the CTU executive board, and a co-chair of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.
How did the union get to this point?
We got to this point because CPS has been starving our schools for years. It has been death by a thousand cuts. But recently it’s felt more like, I don’t know, chopping off our arms. We’ve seen over the years more layoffs, class sizes increasing, cuts to counselors and clinicians, our schools being closed, private schools and charters opening up. It’s making the learning and working conditions very difficult in the schools.
Just this school year, there have been so many cuts to our schools that it’s hard to keep track of them. At the beginning of the year, there were millions of dollars in cuts to special ed. Our students with disabilities weren’t getting their services that were required by law; parents and teachers and community groups had to go fight the Board of Ed with lawyers to get services back.
Then there were more special ed cuts in the middle of the year, then more general layoffs. A month or two ago, there were even more cuts. My school lost $100,000. Our budgets were already bare bones, and the principals had to cut even more.
And then just two weeks ago, we had another round of cuts. They froze all the funds; my school lost another $80,000. For my school, they’ve cut almost all the before- and after-school programs — intervention programs for kids who were struggling, all types of clubs — plus most of our substitutes.
We’re not able to function with this low level of funding. And the board says they’re going to make more cuts. Being in the school right now, I can’t imagine what else they could cut.
We only have one nurse right now for a couple days a week to serve 1,200 students. If a student is sick — maybe they vomited, maybe they have lice — they’re sent back to the classroom, because there’s no nurse there. The majority of schools only have one counsellor for all their students.
We’ve gotten to this point because we have no funding. CPS, Rahm and his appointed board of education have been using the equivalent of a credit card to pay for everything. They keep taking out loans and loans and loans, and our debt keeps increasing. And we go further into debt, so the cuts keep coming.
This is why we need progressive revenue solutions. We can’t just keep cutting.
What is at stake with the contract?
They stopped paying our steps and lanes, which provide for pay increases based on time in the schools and degrees earned. Legally, they have to continue paying them, because we’re still under our old contract, which provides for steps and lanes pay increases. So they’re breaking the contract, which is why we’re going on an unfair labor practice strike.
Union leadership has indicated they aren’t particularly concerned whether the one-day strike is deemed legal or not—even though CPS has said it is illegal.
As of now, CPS hasn’t gone to court over it.
What do you think would happen if Mayor Emanuel did seek an injunction to end the strike?
The district has always paid our steps and lanes since 1967. Our lawyers say this shows it’s an unfair labor practice strike. But Rauner has a lot of appointed members on the state labor board, so there’s a chance they could rule against it. I don’t see that happening before the strike, though.
But look at what’s happened in the past. For example, at my school, Saucedo, teachers boycotted the administration of a state standardized test, the ISAT. CPS called it illegal and said they were going to fire us and take away our teaching licenses. But none of us were disciplined at all. One school was united and they backed off of disciplining us; they definitely won’t be able to discipline thirty thousand people.
During the last strike, when Mayor Emanuel sought an injunction against the CTU in the second week of the strike, some people talked about the union committing mass acts of civil disobedience if they were ordered back to school. Do you think that would happen in this case, if teachers were ordered back?
Yes. Teachers came into this profession to improve students’ lives. The majority of our students are low-income. The teachers I know can’t continue to see their students mistreated like this anymore. We can’t continue to see our schools being stripped down.
The consequences of not striking are far worse than striking. If you want to see the consequences of not striking, look at cities like Detroit, where they have skyrocketing class sizes and don’t have proper cleaning services. Look at New Orleans, which has no public schools left. These are the consequences of not fighting the privatization and austerity agenda in public education.
The 2012 strike was almost unanimously seen as a victory, but mostly because you won at a time when everyone else was losing. What will victory look like this time around?
Victory will be showing a united force — not just teachers and parents and students, but actually creating a movement with other workers from around the city and the state: fast food workers, bus and train drivers, professors at colleges around the city. Their standing up for what’s right will show our force and strengthen the union movement.
A lot of these workers who are participating in Friday’s action haven’t gone on strike in decades, or maybe have never gone on strike. This could reenergize the labor movement in Chicago, and hopefully around the country. It will show that we’re united in demanding progressive revenue. We’re not going to stop until the rich are taxed more.
We’re calling for a millionaires’ tax, a financial transactions tax, ;tax increment financing surpluses to go back to the schools, a progressive state income tax. The last one is particularly important because Illinois has a flat state income tax. Only nine states around the country have flat income taxes like we do.
Poor people in Illinois should not be paying the same amount of money as Ken Griffin; they wouldn’t if we had a progressive income tax.
What have the conversations among members looked like about the potential illegality of this strike?
We start off the conversation by saying that this is a ULP strike, but there’s a chance that the labor board could rule against us. That’s one of the risks we have to take. But if we stand together — not just with ourselves but with all these other unions and community organizations — we’ll be safe. Besides, the consequences of not doing it are far worse.
This is not the kind of thing unions do very often. What do you think the rest of labor should learn from what the CTU has done in Chicago?
Labor needs to learn that they can’t be collaborationists. They have to fight back against the bosses, but also against the politicians that are hurting the workers. The only way to do that is to show militant force and withhold our labor.
A lot of unions have stopped using strikes as weapons. But striking is the most powerful weapon we have. I think our strike in 2012 started to re-energize labor; I hope that continues.
We can’t just be service model-style unions — we have to actually energize every single union, every single workplace, so our members, the rank and file, are the ones leading these actions.
The union has strongly embraced fights against racism in Chicago. CTU has referred to “educational apartheid” in the city, spoken out against the loss of teachers of color, called the 49 school closings of 2013 “racist.” And the union recently called for the resignation of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Mayor Emanuel in the wake of the Laquan McDonald scandal. Can you talk about the importance of the issue of racism for the union?
CTU has put systemic racism in our city to the forefront of our agenda. That’s meant some difficult conversations with members. But we can’t deny it. We live in a city where nearly all the schools being closed are in black neighborhoods — how can people say that’s not racism? The libraries and mental health clinics are being closed in black and Latino neighborhoods — how can people say that’s not racism?
So when CTU spoke about police brutality, some members were upset. But we couldn’t be silent when one of our own CPS students was shot sixteen times by a police officer.
Also, just like how we want a school board that’s elected by the people, we also want a Civilian Police Accountability Council, that would be elected by the people of Chicago who would oversee evidence of any police shootings.
If you look at this last primary election, it showed the power not only of the CTU, but also the power of black young people’s organizations like the Black Youth Project 100. We killed that election — we won eight of the nine races that we endorsed in. It was especially important that we kicked out Anita Alvarez and anti-union state reps like Ken Dunkin. That shows our power.
Have union members who were skeptical of this anti-racism stance changed their opinions on it over time?
It took a lot of debate and discussion — in schools, in our House of Delegates — but we won people over. If we’re going to be a social justice union that fights for the rights of our students, we have to speak against corruption and brutality.
Actions like Friday’s shutdown, the 2012 strike, and much of the union’s program over the past six years never would have been possible without the election of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators to union leadership in 2010 and its reelection in 2013. What’s your sense of how strong the caucus is in schools right now, and how well-organized are your opponents?
We just submitted our petitions for election this week, because the elections are coming up at the end of this school year. And no one is running against us.
People support CORE. They like our message; they like having an active union that takes risks and has the membership take the lead.
Media like the Chicago Tribune have never been our friend — they’ve frequently insulted our profession. It’s ridiculous to tell people to scab when people are striking to actually get funding for our students.
But I don’t expect teachers to scab. They’re brave, and they know they’re fighting what’s right. They got into this profession to stand up for students. So I don’t expect there will be many scabs.
Interestingly, most people in the House of Delegates who voted “no” on the strike actually wanted a longer strike. People were getting up and saying this. And others who voted no still said they would respect the strike. The vote was overwhelming in favor of the strike, 486 to 124.
Talk about the significance of Governor Bruce Rauner.
Rahm has really been crushed at this point. His approval ratings from January showed an 18 percent approval rating for education. I think his career is pretty much over at this point. He’s still doing a lot of terrible things, but everyone hates him.
Rauner, on the other hand, hasn’t been crushed yet. We’re getting there — we crushed some of his friends. But we haven’t stopped him.
Rauner’s budget cuts are hurting the entire state — not just now, but over the long term. The state has stopped paying for MAP grants. Well, MAP grants are how many of our students are able to go to college at all.
And they’re talking about closing Chicago State University — huge numbers of our black students and black teachers went there. They’re trying to close the school that graduates the most African Americans in the whole state.
There are so many actions happening on Friday.
Yeah, it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. In addition to all the marches and rallies, many community groups are setting up their own actions — we keep hearing about new ones that we didn’t plan.
In my neighborhood, Little Village, there’s going to be a whole march going from Little Village High School to my school, Saucedo, then going to the Cook County prison. We’re connecting how funding should be going to our schools, not prisons — connecting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Some politicians are purposely defunding our schools, but they’re funding prisons. If they actually funded our schools, social services and restorative justice coordinators, we would have fewer of our students going to jail.