A Chicago Teacher Explains Why She’s Going on a Potentially Illegal Strike Tomorrow

Micah Uetricht March 31, 2016

(Chicago Teachers Union / Instagram)

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union is going on strike on Fri­day. 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. Incred­i­bly, they were 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: 49 school clo­sures, round after round of lay­offs, bud­get cuts teach­ers say have been dev­as­tat­ing. And Illi­nois’ new Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, pri­vate equi­ty mogul Bruce Rauner, has car­ried out a dis­as­trous agen­da of cuts and 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 weighed 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 the 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 strike that 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 coun­sel­lors 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’s 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 1200 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 try to com­pel an end to 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 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 30,000 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 that 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 us 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 16 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.

Did you read the recent Chica­go Tri­bune edi­to­r­i­al on this action? They referred to the action as Tantrum Day,” and admit­ted that only a small minor­i­ty of CTU mem­bers oppose the walk­out but called for them to cross pick­et lines.

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 Gov. 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 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.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times and is a for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor and edi­to­r­i­al intern at the mag­a­zine. He is man­ag­ing edi­tor at Jacobin, the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty, and has writ­ten for the Nation, the Chica­go Read­er, VICE News, the Guardian and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.
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