Walking the Picket Line with Chicago Teachers

Daniel Williams, Contributing Writer

For the first time in 25 years, 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike on Sept. 10, 2012. The strike was an historic moment, since Chicago has been ground zero for the education “reform” movement and the neoliberal agenda of privatization. Aside from what it means for the state of education, the teachers strike is a clarion call from a middle class under attack as union membership in our country declines and inequality continues to rise.

Picket lines were visible near every public elementary and high school as teachers and their supporters held signs, hailing passing motorists. Despite relentless sound bites from the media, teachers were not just striking over pay. Salaries were the one item they could legally strike over without a court injunction. Teachers described their feelings about improving schools that receive a series of principals in succession, a shortage of social workers, music, art and physical education teachers, changing job definitions which lead to layoffs for not having specific subject endorsements, and an administration that was lacking in communication. Teachers also recognized how schools coincidentally lose funding for some time just before being converted to charter schools.

The Chicago Board of Education (Board), in collaboration with Wall Street hedge funds, politicians from both parties and the city’s business elites, have been engaged in a process to dismantle the public school system, privatize Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and weaken the CTU. This is the neoliberal model- to destroy labor unions, depress wages, privatize public institutions and leave education in the hands of the marketplace. Dozens of schools in communities populated largely by Latinos and African Americans are closed and turned over to charter school networks while their entire staff is fired. All of this despite evidence stating that public schools controlled by Chicago’s Local School Councils regularly outperform charter schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked school board is made up of corporate executives and millionaires not representative of the students CPS serves by any stretch of the imagination, enacting policies to increase standardized testing in schools, link teacher evaluations to test scores, lay off teachers and remove arts, vocational, physical education and music programs from the school day. This pro-corporate “reform” agenda is supported at the federal level by Obama Administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former CEO of CPS.

The Board held a series of hearings earlier this year regarding the closing of 17 schools. A public hearing at Malcolm X College for Richard T. Crane Technical High School had protestors, later found to be employed by the mayor and his allies, supported these closings. A hearing for Edward Tilden High School was held miles away from the school and late at night. People gave testimony about how closing the school was erasing the community’s history. Special education teachers spoke about how they worked with students dismissed from the very charter schools the Board sought to expand.

The Board concluded with a unanimous vote to close all schools this year. Dozens of people shouted, “shame!” as the final hearing ended. Testimony from hundreds of parents, teachers, students, community leaders, journalists, policy experts, public servants and activists was irrelevant to the Board. Schools will continue to have decade-old textbooks, lack of air conditioning, physical education, music, art and libraries.

This past summer, several grassroots groups, including Parents for Teachers (P4T) and the Coalition to Organize for Democracy in Education (CODE), collected signatures to place a referendum on the ballot asking if Chicago should have an elected school board. Chicago has the distinction of being the only district in the state with an appointed board, a change former Mayor Richard Daley made as a state law. Various groups received over 13,000 signatures in over 26 wards. Unfortunately, Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) blocked the measure from the ballot by exercising bureaucratic maneuvers. Meanwhile, 90% of CTU members voted to authorize a strike, exceeding the minimum vote level of a state law backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel stating that teachers needed a vote of 75% or more.

In the meantime, CPS announced a budget for 2013 that offered millions of dollars to charter networks while starving more than 100 schools of resources and putting them in line for potential closing. One activist described the coalitions being formed across the city in support of the teachers as a Harold Washington moment in the city, referring to the progressive political movement that backed Chicago’s first African American mayor.

After the strike was declared, a sea of CTU members and supporters flooded downtown Chicago streets in red shirts. It was reported that on one day more than 50,000 people surrounded City Hall and Daley Plaza. Picket lines sprouted at every CPS school, often followed by impromptu marches on aldermanic offices or local rallies. Messages of support poured in from teachers and unions, locally and from around the world. It is clear to teachers that they are facing a neoliberal agenda that would like to destroy public education for good. There is hope for quality, funded public schools, dissent in a democracy, labor movements based on workers and a better future for America’s education system. Conditions will not improve unless people actively participate in changing them for the better. The CTU struggle is a fight for the human right to education and a beacon of hope for working people.