The most unpopular mayor in modern Chicago history retreated when confronted with the threat of another strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Late on October 10, teachers won a tentative agreement meeting many, though not all, of their demands, hours before they were ready to hit the picket lines for the third time in four years.
CTU members have been fighting for a new contract for nearly a year and a half, facing relentless demands for drastic concessions from the tag team of Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel and Republican Illinois governor Bruce Rauner. But despite threats and underhanded tactics, the teachers stayed strong.
The CTU rank and file voted twice, by an overwhelming margin, to authorize a walkout; went out on a one-day strike, in alliance with other public-sector unions and social justice organizations, that the city deemed illegal; and headed into the new school year preparing, as they did in 2012, for another all-out battle for a fair contract.
Emanuel and Rauner thought their tough-guy routine would get the teachers to cave. But Emanuel was the one who blinked first — and moreover, he’ll have to dip into his slush fund of siphoned-off tax revenue, destined for his developer pals, in order to meet the teachers’ demands.
At the same time, an important discussion will go on among union activists — starting at the CTU’s October 19 house of delegates meeting, which will decide whether to recommend passage of the tentative agreement when it comes to a vote of the full membership — about whether the union could have won more and avoided making concessions, like the first-time introduction of a two-tier system for pension contributions, by going ahead with a strike.
This discussion is important not only for the CTU, but for unions everywhere. At issue is when and how a militant union like the CTU can forge ahead in struggle at a time when most others remain in full retreat. If Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials, despite all of their tough talk, were prepared to retreat part or most of the way on the most important contract issues, could a strike have forced them to come up with even more?
The CTU reached a tentative agreement just before midnight on October 10, minutes shy of the strike deadline.
The union’s big bargaining team — comprised of more than fifty rank-and-file CTU members, including most of the union’s elected executive board — voted overwhelmingly to support the deal. Just a handful of members voted “no,” arguing for proceeding with a strike.
That night, city officials acknowledged to the media that Emanuel would find the money to pay for the contract exactly where the CTU said he could: The piggy bank otherwise known as the tax increment financing (TIF) scheme.
The TIF program is a huge pool of money accumulated by diverting tax revenues from schools, libraries, and other public services into a fund for development projects that are at the discretion of the mayor.
This year’s haul for the TIF system is estimated — by Cook County Clerk David Orr, no less — to be $461 million, of which between $150 and $200 million isn’t already committed to ongoing projects. To pay for the contract with the teachers, if approved by the CTU membership, Emanuel would have to use more than $100 million of that surplus.
The local media, continuing their crude scapegoating campaign against teachers, whined that teachers wouldn’t make any of the “shared sacrifices” that their editorials lectured them to accept.
In reality, the money promised in the contract will make up for at least some of the sacrifices that have been imposed on teachers, students, and the city as a whole over many years.
The still-to-be-ratified agreement would reestablish “steps” and “lanes” salary increases, under which teachers are paid incrementally more for each year in the classroom and for each educational degree they attain. CPS unilaterally suspended “steps” and “lanes” last year.
Under another provision in the deal, teachers laid off by CPS would receive full pay and benefits for ten months. This restores a concession in the 2012 contract that reduced the time period to five months. In addition, the punitive teacher evaluation system, known as REACH and based on standardized testing, would be weakened so principals can no longer fast-track lower-rated teachers for layoff.
The tentative agreement also includes a step forward on class size — CPS would have to fund teacher aides for oversized classes in kindergarten through second grade. The CTU wants much more done about classroom size, but this would set an important precedent for future bargaining — and those additional personnel in the classroom will directly help students.
So will other gains in the proposed contract. The agreement would devote between $10 million and $27 million to “wraparound” social services for between twenty and fifty-five schools in neighborhoods struggling with poverty and youth violence. School counselors would have the option to turn over case management tasks to administrators in order to spend more time with students.
There would be no net increase in charter school enrollment, and a moratorium on school closings would remain in place through the next school year, with closures to take place after that date only if schools don’t meet graduation requirements.
These are important steps forward, both big and small — not only for teachers, but also for students, parents and the community in Chicago.
Probably the single dominant issue throughout negotiations was the city’s demand that teachers “pick up” CPS’s portion of contributions to their pension fund. Currently, the city is obligated to pay 7 percent of teachers’ pay into the retirement fund, with teachers kicking in 2.5 percent.
Emanuel and CPS officials, echoed by a pliant mainstream media, went on a public relations offensive to portray the teachers as greedy for refusing to give up this retirement system — while neglecting to point out that teachers, like other public-sector workers, don’t receive benefits from the federal Social Security system, so their pensions are their major form of retirement income.
If the city’s propaganda campaign made headway with public opinion on any issue, it was pensions. Nevertheless, in the tentative agreement, CPS gave up on forcing current teachers to accept the 7 percent “pension pickup.”
However, teachers hired after the start of the next calendar year will have to pay the whole contribution to the pension fund.
Importantly, the tentative deal commits CPS to giving the new teachers a salary increase, phased in initially over six months, to cover their additional contribution to pensions. Financially, the two groups of teachers would be on nearly the same footing after the phase-in.
But this arrangement would create two “tiers” of union members — something familiar to labor activists from concessions contracts dating back over the past three or four decades.
In the CTU’s case, the still-to-be-ratified agreement wouldn’t create much of a pay gap because of the additional salary increase for new teachers. Ultimately, new teachers would make about $100 less per year than they would under the arrangement for current CTU members, according to union members — a differential that would increase to about $500 as teachers move up the scale.
That’s a small, but real difference. Perhaps more importantly, the two-tier system would set the precedent of a different structure for compensation for new employees, potentially giving the city a tool to drive a wedge into the union’s ranks in future negotiations.
And rather than cleanly defeating CPS on the issue at the heart of its propaganda offensive, the deal keeps pensions in play, both in future contract battles and in funding arrangements with the state government.
There are other shortcomings in the tentative agreement. Base salaries would remain frozen for the first two years of the agreement, before a total increase of 4.5 percent in the final two years. Overall, that’s a meager hike that barely keeps base pay at the current official rate of inflation — though the restoration of “steps” and “lanes” will give teachers a bigger paycheck overall.
One of the concessions bitterly opposed by teachers was Emanuel’s insistence that CTU members pay more for health care. While the union pushed back CPS’s demands for a greater amount, it agreed to a 0.8 percent increase on health-care costs — which will further cut into the minimal increase in base pay.
The CTU also came up short on some of its demands for better schools — particularly around special education. Special education teachers would gain the right to file grievances based on state law, helping them to advocate for children, but the tentative agreement wouldn’t make up for budgets cuts imposed by CPS over the past several years.
The money was there to pay for this and other gains needed by the CTU. Emanuel retreated and dipped into the TIF surplus to spend a reported $88 million to fund the proposed contract — in addition to $32 million already allocated to CPS from TIF money — for a total of $120 million. But the TIF surplus is estimated at as high as $200 million — which means there was potentially tens of millions of dollars still on the table.
The question that union members were asking as the strike date approached is still relevant: If Emanuel can find the money to hire nearly one thousand new police officers, why can’t City Hall fund the hiring of one thousand new education workers to ease teacher workloads and cope with rising class sizes?
Where’s the Money?
Of course, up until the final hours, Emanuel was refusing to part with a penny of extra TIF money for teachers or schools or anything else. He was only forced to cough it up because teachers and their many supporters in Chicago refused to be bullied.
Despite the success of their 2012 strike that stopped Emanuel’s concessions drive last time, the stakes were stacked against teachers throughout this contract round.
One new element this time was Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, a hedge-fund almost-billionaire who won office in 2014 with a stated agenda of forcing public-sector unions to bear the brunt of the state budget crisis, if not break them entirely. Rauner threatened to intervene against the CTU and called for CPS to declare bankruptcy and void its labor agreements.
In the state capital, Rauner refused to sign any budget legislation from the Democratic-controlled legislature unless it contained anti-union provisions. The resulting strangulation of state funding was felt in a wide number of social programs.
In turn, this fabricated state budget crisis was useful to Emanuel and his front man at CPS, CEO Forrest Claypool. While publicly opposing Rauner’s obstructionism, they used CPS’s dire financial straits because of the drop-off in state funding to back up their case for why the CTU had to take concessions.
Since the teachers’ contract expired in June 2015, Emanuel and Claypool used the anti-union SB7 law to prolong bargaining, while they tried to break the morale of CTU members with a steady barrage of budget cuts and layoffs — including one thousand teachers and staff axed weeks before the start of school.
The CTU itself was weakened from the period after the victorious 2012 strike. In spring 2013, despite a mobilization in alliance with social justice organizations, the union couldn’t stop Emanuel from taking revenge by closing the largest number of schools ever in a single stroke.
CPS also instituted student-based budgeting, which allocates spending based on the size of a particular school’s enrollment, rather than student needs. As the CTU points out, this further incentivizes principals to lay off veteran teachers in favor of cheaper new hires.
To try to push back, the CTU’s focus for a time was less on contract enforcement than on politics. The union devoted money and lots of person-hours to try to elect Jesús “Chuy” García as mayor in a 2015 battle against Emanuel, along with campaigns for city council seats. Although García did inflict political damage on Emanuel, forcing him into a runoff, he also embraced the political establishment’s austerity agenda in Chicago, undermining the union’s goal of backing a political alternative.
So the union faced a tough fight as the contract battle headed toward a confrontation. But the counter to these challenges was the strength and determination of the CTU rank and file — and the alliances made by the union to stand up for all of working-class Chicago.
Late last year, CTU members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, far surpassing the requirement in the SB7 law for 75 percent of all members, not just those voting, to approve a strike.
The union was under no obligation to do so, but it held a second strike authorization vote when classes began again in September, with the same overwhelming result: a 95 percent “yes” vote from the 90 percent of CTU members who participated.
The CTU took advantage of Emanuel’s political weakness. In particular, the union confirmed its commitment to fighting for social justice by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement against racist police violence — crucially, after the release of covered-up video footage of the cops’ execution of Laquan McDonald sent Emanuel’s approval rating plunging to new lows.
On April 1, the union made common cause with state university employees and community organizations battling Rauner’s draconian budget cuts, holding a one-day strike over unfair labor practices. The Tribune denounced the day of action as a “tantrum” by the CTU, but the mobilization highlighted the alternative to accepting the politicians’ austerity agenda: stand and fight.
As the days and then hours ticked down toward an October 11 strike date set by the CTU’s house of delegates, Emanuel and Claypool kept up a tough front. But then came the last-minute offer of a contract agreement that gave ground on many issues.
The weaknesses that remain in the tentative agreement, like the two-tier pension contribution structure, have led some CTU members to conclude that the deal falls short of what could have been accomplished with a strike. With Emanuel politically weakened, they believe, the CTU — having proven that the mayor would retreat — should have carried on with the walkout and pushed for more.
For these reasons, some teachers are preparing to vote “no” on the tentative agreement to send the union’s bargaining team back to the table and set a new strike deadline. Others have concluded that while the union might have won more with a strike, the moment for that has passed, and CTU members can concentrate now on the battles ahead.
The CTU’s Potential
Could more have been won on the picket line?
Certainly, a strike held risks for the CTU. Emanuel’s PR machine and the local media would have attacked the teachers for rejecting a good deal, using school children as bargaining chips, soaking up property tax dollars for their paychecks, and on and on. Most of the city’s big union leaders, either fearful of the mayor or allied with him, were quiet in the run-up to the strike deadline. They would have had to be prodded into supporting the teachers, as was the case in the 2012 strike.
CPS also announced that it was preparing to keep all Chicago schools open during a strike — not because they expected teachers and students to show up initially, but to set the stage for a back-to-work movement if the strike dragged on for several weeks toward November 1, when the city could have cut off payments for the teachers’ health care coverage.
But it’s also clear that another CTU strike held enormous risks for Emanuel, whose approval rating was 18 percent last December before rebounding recently. For one, the mayor would have come under intense pressure from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to settle a huge walkout in the country’s third-largest city during the weeks before November 8.
In addition, the CTU proved that Emanuel has more money in the TIF piggy bank to devote to better schools and giving the teachers a just contract. And the union has the sentiment of working people across the city — fed up with cuts in school budgets, declining social services, political corruption, and tax breaks for business — on its side.
Beyond the debate about what could have been won if the strike had gone forward on October 11, a “no” vote on the agreement to send the union back to the negotiating table with a new strike date raises other questions: Specifically, what would it take to prepare the CTU to be ready to strike with confidence once again?
These important discussions will and should continue within the union and throughout the labor movement.
If the CTU membership rejects the tentative deal, the urgency in building solidarity with the teachers will be just as important as before. If, on the other hand, the agreement is ratified, the teachers’ struggle and the fight to defend public education won’t be over in Chicago by any means.
Either way, the fighting tradition of the CTU — including its recent experiences of a victorious strike in 2012 and the mobilization of its membership and wide array of supporters in this contract round — can serve as a guide in the ongoing struggle for the schools our children and our teachers deserve, in Chicago and around the country.
Originally published in Socialist Worker.