UPDATE: The Chicago School Board told the New York Times Friday afternoon that in negotiations, an outline for a deal had been drafted. But the Chicago Teachers Union seemed to contradict this on Facebook, posting “If you didn’t hear it from CTU, it isn’t true.” CTU delegates will meet Sunday to vote on whatever deal emerges. Working In These Times will continue to post details over the weekend.
Friday morning, Chicago teachers were back on the picket lines with still no deal announced – although the previous day, union president Karen Lewis said she was confident a deal would be reached shortly and that students could be back in school on Monday.
A meeting of union delegates is scheduled for Friday at 2p.m., with both sides saying they are hopeful a deal will be reached by then. If a deal is approved by delegates, the strike can be called off. Then the full contract must be ratified by the membership.
Meanwhile, teachers and supporters in red shirts continued to blanket Chicago neighborhoods. On a mile-long stretch of Blue Island Avenue on the near southwest side, trucks barely stopped honking as they proceeded south: first past teachers outside Smith Joyner Elementary, the “home of the pirates,” then past another group outside a McDonalds, then more clustered in front of Vargas Romero hardware store, and then a large crowd of teachers gathered around a wind turbine on the grounds of Benito Juarez Community Academy high school.
In addition to picketing, teachers were also canvassing, spilling out into surrounding streets to talk to residents and hand out fliers about a mass rally planned for Saturday. Depending how Friday’s talks pan out, the “Wisconsin-style rally” could be something of a victory rally or a show of increasing pressure on the school board.
Karen Lewis reports progress on key issues, including teacher evaluation and job security for teachers who are laid off from “failing” schools that are closed or “turned around.” However, a final deal has not been reached on either, and not many details are available.
A new proposal offered by the school board Tuesday said that tenured teachers could not be dismissed based on evaluations in their first year, and later evaluations could be appealed. The new proposal would also let teachers keep their existing health benefits at current rates if they agree to join a no-cost wellness program.
Adam Heenan, a union delegate and social studies teacher at Curie Metro High School on the southwest side, says he trusts union leaders’ reports of progress but will not vote to approve anything until he has gotten feedback from the members he represents.
“Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon,” he says of the various points still under debate.
He believes the recall rights for teachers laid off at closed schools are especially important, as they that get at the issue of public schools being closed in favor of charter schools—a trend the union is legally barred from directly addressing in negotiations.
“This is a national struggle that has to do with the impact the (federal) Race to the Top program has on union contracts and encouraging school closings,” says Heenan. “This is something people at schools all over know they will have to deal with, so they are watching us.”
Community Impact and Support
The Chicago School Board continues to operate drop-in centers for students, now running from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm, at close to 150 schools, but attendance is still reportedly very low. The board has said that if the strike continues on Monday, they will offer online classes for elementary school students. Parents, including public school teachers, have organized their own “strike schools,” including one in the Uptown neighborhood and a “solidarity camp” in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Media reports have noted increasing frustration among parents seeking options for their children. But a poll by Capitol Fax notes significant support for the strike, especially among African-American and Latino parents. The poll found that among 1,344 Chicago households, 55.5 percent supported and 40 percent opposed the strike, while a full 66 percent of parents with students in public school supported the strike. Sixty-three percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Latinos (including non-parents) supported the strike, and more than a third of respondents blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the strike, while 29 percent blamed the union and 19 percent blamed the school board.
“In other words, a solid majority blames management, one way or the other,” wrote Rich Miller on Capitol Fax.
At Benito Juarez school on Friday morning, numerous parents and students wore red shirts and waved signs. Local student Citlalli Ortiz said she credits her elementary school teachers for helping her get into Lane Tech High School, a selective, sought-after public high school on the north side of the city.
“They supported us with our education, now it’s our turn to support them,” said Ortiz, 14.
The Issues on the Table
As negotiations resume today, the issue of job security for teachers laid off from schools that are closed or “turned around” is still a major sticking point, despite rumors of progress. Currently, such teachers are guaranteed placement in a pool of applicants and getting a job interview, but with no promise of actually being hired.
Teachers say this policy punishes teachers who dedicate themselves to schools in low-income areas, where students face many challenges that affect their performance. The issue is especially contentious given that more school closings are likely in coming years; the union thinks about 100 schools will be closed under the administration’s current plans. The board says that it can cover the teacher raises that have been discussed (16 percent over four years) by saving money on closing low-enrollment, under-performing schools – a route the teachers are leery of. The board pegs the expense of the raises at about $80 million a year, or $240 million total, while the union says they the entire cost will be $60-$100 million less.
In Chicago, as nationally, the method of evaluating teachers has long been a subject of contention. As Curtis Black explained at a Community Media Workshop, at the urging of Chicago officials, a state law passed two years ago requires Chicago public schools to launch a new evaluation system this year – several years earlier than other Illinois schools. Under the new Chicago system, between 30 and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on how much “value added” they contribute to their students, as measured by testing. To help reach the 30 percent threshold, 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student surveys currently in development, a measure some teachers support and others oppose. Beyond that, the method of measurement – typical standardized, multiple-choice tests or more nuanced, in-depth measures such as student essays – is up for debate.
The board’s new proposal allowing teachers to continue their current health benefits if they agree to a wellness program could be seen as a significant victory for the union, though some teachers have described the wellness plan as demanding and “punitive.”
A Conclusion Near?
Thousands of teachers, supporters and out-of-town visitors are expected for Saturday’s rally in Union Park, just a few blocks from the strike headquarters at Teamster City, which lies on a stretch of Ashland Avenue with other union halls, including the UE and IBEW. As in Wisconsin, donors have been contributing to standing daily pizza orders delivered to the headquarters by Primos Chicago Pizza.
Greeting other labor leaders outside Teamster City on Wednesday, Teamsters Local 705 attorney Ned Burke said Mayor Emanuel has unwittingly energized the Chicago labor movement, in part because he didn’t understand the dedication and commitment of teachers to their students.
“The fact Rahm and his pals in Springfield tried to make it illegal for teachers to strike will actually make them strike more,” he said. “Teachers actually care about their kids – otherwise they would just teach to the test like Rahm wants them to. But they actually have pride in their work; they don’t want to mess up the product.”
But, he added, it remains to be seen how the strike’s momentum will play out.
“Everyone goes to their Flint sit-down strike moment. In the histiography of labor everyone sees these moments as frozen in time,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. It’s an ongoing process.”
Asked whether he sees lasting impact from the teachers strike, Benito Juarez high school teacher Enrique Romero says there is no doubt.
“There are rumors that Benito Juarez will be turned into a charter school,” he says. “If that happens, we are all out of a job and everything we went on strike for will be for nothing. That’s why one of the sticking points in the contract is the recall rights.”
Romero has taught for 28 years at three schools, and said this strike has drawn much larger crowds and waves of support than the last strike in 1987.
“This is pivotal in terms of labor relations, in terms of unions in general,” he said. “You see it with all the truckers, firefighters, police officers supporting us. This shows unions can be united for a cause. This fight will go on.”
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.