With Thousands Marching in the Streets, Chicago Teachers Union Declares ‘This Means War!’

Martin de Bourmont

Teachers, Students and Community Members demonstrate in front of the Chicago Board of Trade

Cries of this means war!” echoed through­out Chicago’s finan­cial dis­trict this Tues­day as teach­ers demon­strat­ed against the Board of Edu­ca­tion ahead of union con­tract nego­ti­a­tions this summer.

They made for a for­mi­da­ble sight: led by a troupe of black-clad high school per­cus­sion­ists and hold­ing their fists up high, mem­bers of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and their sup­port­ers marched on Chicago’s LaSalle Street yes­ter­day demand­ing ade­quate wages, ben­e­fits and resources for their stu­dents, insist­ing that the district’s finan­cial woes are actu­al­ly a case of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) being broke on purpose.”

The ral­ly, which began in front of Chicago’s James R. Thomp­son cen­ter, served as an unof­fi­cial kick­off for the CTU’s cam­paign to bar­gain a new con­tract with CPS’s Board of Edu­ca­tion, which rep­re­sents 400,000 stu­dents and the country’s third-largest school dis­trict. The cur­rent con­tract expires on June 30.

CPS cur­rent­ly faces a $1.1 bil­lion bud­get gap for the fis­cal year begin­ning on July 1, leav­ing doubt as to whether or not it will be able to pay the $634 mil­lion due to the Chica­go Teach­ers Pen­sion Fund on June 30. Fur­ther ham­per­ing nego­ti­a­tions between the CTU and CPS is the district’s con­tention that Chica­go teach­ers will need to accept a 7% pay cut along with increas­es in health insur­ance premiums.

Rather than enact­ing bud­get cuts, the CTU is demand­ing that the city’s wealth­i­est cor­po­ra­tions pay more in tax­es in order to fund small­er class sizes, less stan­dard­ized test­ing, fund­ing for school libraries and art class­es, and increased staffing of all schools with coun­selors and clin­i­cians. Teach­ers also demand­ed the pro­tec­tion of teach­ers’ pen­sions and salaries.

Many of the demon­stra­tors car­ried signs that matched the evening’s rhetoric in mil­i­tan­cy and suc­cinct con­dem­na­tion of the Chica­go city gov­ern­ment. Pay­out? No thanks!” read a pop­u­lar sign. Take the mon­ey from the banks!” The 1% owes us,” read anoth­er. Oth­ers remind­ed onlook­ers of the sac­ri­fices inher­ent in every pub­lic school teacher’s life: “ I do this for the mon­ey,’ said no teacher ever.”

At the ral­ly, teach­ers spoke of the increas­ing­ly harsh con­di­tions they faced at work and their neg­a­tive impact on Chica­go students.

We get [to school] at around 5 or 5:30 every sin­gle morn­ing,” explained one teacher from Far­ragut Career Acad­e­my. On Mon­days, I arrive a lit­tle bit late, around six and I usu­al­ly leave around five. When I go home, I work, and I work dur­ing the week­ends. And now they’re going to take away 7% of my income.”

Hol­ly Charles, a teacher from West Engle­wood, explained that many schools do not even have enough fund­ing to sup­port a jan­i­to­r­i­al staff. I didn’t get into teach­ing for the mon­ey,” she said, not­ing that she had worked in the CPS sys­tem for 30 years. I’m bring­ing toi­let paper from home, hav­ing to mop my own floor,” she says. There’s not enough mon­ey for jan­i­tors. But I bet if you head into any of the CPS head­quar­ters, you’ll find toi­let paper and clean floors there.”

Anoth­er teacher, from Chicago’s South Shore High School, said that his school’s needs went far beyond a jan­i­to­r­i­al staff. We don’t even have libraries in the school,” he said. We need to reduce our class sizes, [but] they’re increas­ing class sizes. If they increase class sizes teach­ers are going to be man­ag­ing stu­dents not teach­ing students.”

Lim­it­ing class sizes was a pri­or­i­ty for most of the teach­ers I spoke to. You have one teacher for every thir­ty kids,” explained one teacher from Chicago’s West Side. We don’t have enough staff. Thir­ty kids with one teacher is just crazy. Our spe­cial needs kids aren’t get­ting service.”

On May 6, the CTU filed an unfair labor prac­tice com­plaint against the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion, alleg­ing that the board engaged in reac­tionary and retal­ia­to­ry mea­sures” by pur­pose­ly stalling nego­ti­a­tions and requir­ing teach­ers to bear the bur­den of a man­u­fac­tured cri­sis. Cit­ing CPS’s dam­ag­ing invest­ments in high-risk bonds and a $20.5 mil­lion con­tract to train school prin­ci­pals, CTU pres­i­dent Karen Lewis argued that CPS is broke on pur­pose,” and that the Board has cre­at­ed a fis­cal cri­sis in order to jus­ti­fy its con­tin­ued attacks on our class­rooms and our communities.”

Adding fric­tion to the already con­tentious rela­tion­ship between CPS and the CTU is a recent scan­dal involv­ing Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett, the for­mer CEO of CPS. Hired by May­or Rahm Emanuel in 2012, Byrd-Ben­nett resigned from her post on June 1, almost two months after fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tors launched an inves­ti­ga­tion against her for alleged­ly award­ing a $20.5 mil­lion no-bid con­tract to a for­mer employer.

After con­gre­gat­ing at the James R. Thomp­son Cen­ter, teach­ers, par­ents, stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers marched on LaSalle Street, home to the Chica­go Board of Trade, the world’s old­est futures and options exchange. The Chica­go Board of Trade now belongs to the CME Group, which also includes the Chica­go Mer­can­tile exchange and is one of the world’s largest options and futures exchanges. Labeled the biggest finan­cial exchange you have nev­er heard of” by The Econ­o­mist in 2013, the CME Group owns deriv­a­tives and futures exchanges in Chica­go and New York as well as the Dow Jones stock and finan­cial indexes.

The union’s point was clear: the city gov­ern­ment should return the mon­ey it lost on LaSalle street to the peo­ple of Chicago.

Whose city?” chant­ed the marchers as they walked towards the Board of Trade. Our city!” was the evening’s resound­ing cry.

Upon reach­ing the Board of Trade, Tara Stamps, a class­room teacher and city coun­cil can­di­date spoke not only to the con­cerns of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers, but to all Chicagoans of work­ing-class back­grounds. She likened the Chica­go Board of Trade to a group of degen­er­ate gam­blers play­ing a high-stakes game in which penal­ties are reserved for Chicago’s poor and minor­i­ty populations. 

This is the Chica­go Board of Trade!” she exclaimed. They have the mon­ey. They’re the biggest gam­blers in the busi­ness and they’re gam­bling with our babies’ future! They’re jail­ing us out, they’re pri­va­tiz­ing us out and they’re try­ing to get us out by any means necessary.”

This isn’t just about black folks, or Lati­no folks,” she told the crowd. If you are poor, or work­ing class, they’re try­ing to move you out of Chica­go. They don’t want us here. Well I’ll be damned if they try to move me out of my Chicago!”

Michael Brun­son, a Chica­go edu­ca­tor and the CTU’s record­ing sec­re­tary, took the micro­phone after Stamps to call for a LaSalle Street Tax,” echo­ing a plan elab­o­rat­ed by Karen Lewis in 2014 that called for tax­ing buy­ers and sell­ers of futures, futures options and secu­ri­ties option con­tracts trad­ed on the Chica­go Mer­can­tile Exchange and the Chica­go Board of Options trade. Last year, Lewis argued her pro­pos­al could cre­ate $2 bil­lion in annu­al rev­enue for the city of Chica­go and more than $10 bil­lion for Illi­nois, mit­i­gat­ing the effects of Chicago’s pen­sion crisis.

Every year we hear, we have no mon­ey,’ ” Brun­son began. But CPS is broke on pur­pose! … CPS owes half a bil­lion dol­lars in tox­ic loans. We are going to change that. This is where it is! The Chica­go Board of Trade. We can get over ten bil­lion dol­lars if they tax these trades.”

The ral­ly and the sub­se­quent march on the Chica­go Board of Trade served as a direct chal­lenge to the poli­cies of May­or Emanuel, with whom the CTU has repeat­ed­ly clashed over the past three years. In 2013, Emanuel admin­is­tered the clos­ing of 50 Chica­go pub­lic schools — most­ly in poor minor­i­ty neigh­bor­hoods — for under­per­for­mance” and under­uti­liza­tion.” The pre­vi­ous year, Chica­go teach­ers held the first teach­ers’ strike in 25 years to con­test Rahm’s edu­ca­tion poli­cies, which includ­ed exten­sions to the school day and the expan­sion of char­ter schools, which receive pub­lic fund­ing but are not sub­ject to many of the oper­ate out­side the pub­lic school sys­tem. The strik­ing teach­ers also demand­ed bet­ter pay, increased job secu­ri­ty, fund­ing for arts class­es and wrap­around ser­vices” that sup­port under­priv­i­leged stu­dents includ­ing social work­ers, coun­selors and nurses.

Show us the mon­ey, that’s what we want,” a Taft High School teacher said as the crowd pre­pared to march on the Chica­go Board of Trade. Open the books and let us see how broke you real­ly are.”

Refer­ring to the city’s elect­ed lead­er­ship, he said, The peo­ple of Chica­go elect­ed you. Now what you need to do is take care of the peo­ple instead of your friends — the banks and the big com­pa­nies. We are Chica­go, not those banks.”

Mar­tin de Bour­mont is a Sum­mer 2015 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. He grad­u­at­ed from Dick­in­son Col­lege with a bachelor’s in polit­i­cal sci­ence and pre­vi­ous­ly worked as an edi­to­r­i­al intern for La Croix in France.
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