One of the most accurate picket sign slogans making the rounds in Chicago is “History Class in Session.” On day five of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, it appears that the Chicago Board of Education has made major concessions, and almost everyone here believes that the teachers will go back to work with a significantly better contract than the one they currently have. Although some media outlets have reported that there is a tentative agreement, the magazine and organizing project Labor Notes tweeted that bargaining will continue through the weekend, with the hope that a contract will be ready to present to CTU’s House of Delegates by Sunday night. (Any contract deal would have to be approved by a majority of the membership.) The CTU, for its part, has not made any public announcements, and on its Facebook page late afternoon "If you didn’t hear it from the CTU, it isn’t true."
The mobilization here has rivaled that of Wisconsin during the height of the fight against Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining. On Monday, thousands of teachers and allies rallied in the center of Chicago. Rallies of thousands have occurred every day afterwards, including yesterday, when the teachers set up an electrifying picket line outside the Hyatt in downtown Chicago. They were protesting both against Penny Pritzker, the billionaire Hyatt heiress who has been a key driver of education “reform” in Chicago, and in solidarity with the hotel worker’s union UNITE HERE, which is currently organizing a global boycott of Hyatt hotels due to poor working conditions. A rally that’s likely to be the largest yet is planned for tomorrow, with busloads of teachers from Wisconsin expected to come in solidarity.
The battle for the soul of public education is cast by education “reformers” as well-intentioned parents and children fighting against evil teachers unions, and by teachers and their community allies (which right now includes 56 percent of the city of Chicago, including 66 percent of public school parents, as a CTU-commissioned poll found) as a fight for the 99 percent against the 1 percent. It is clear that teachers, led by the CTU, are now winning this battle. Fallout is already being felt across the nation. The Boston School Department is coming under fire from education “reformers” for hastily resolving a contract that has been negotiated for two years, and which last negotiated in mid-August. The scuttlebut there is that the mayor and the school board desperately wanted to avoid a repeat of Chicago in Beantown. Although it is illegal for teachers in Massachusetts to strike, the union could have engaged in an illegal strike action, or there could have been other kinds of rank-and-file activity.
After the first day of the Chicago strike, the school board presented a revised contract proposal. The sticking points remain the layoff provisions as they relate to performance, but it appears that CPS has agreed to an appeals process for teacher evaluations, which will likely lead to considerably fewer layoffs.
One major tentative win in negotiations is that any attempt by Rahm Emanuel to take away teachers’ raises with the argument that the city doesn’t have enough money, as he did during the 2010–11 school year, will now be contractually impossible. Another major tentative agreement, sources say, is that the union and the board have agreed to a deal to reverse the dramatic under-representation of black and Latino teachers in the public schools. Under the tentative deal, CPS will have a contractually obligated commitment to making sure that the racial composition of teachers at CPS reflects the student population. This considerable victory, if implemented, could set the standard to reverse the significantly declining percentage of black teachers in education nationally.
If you’ve been following mainstream media reports on the strike, you’ve probably noticed the media present the 76 percent female workforce in public schools as as “crazy” and “manic.” The New York Times editorial board argued that the strike harms students (again, despite significant support for the teachers among public school parents). This reaction is essentially about a very white, mostly male, and wealthy section of this nation’s elite trying to dictate the terms of public education for students who are mostly black or brown and poor, and professionals who are almost exclusively female. Somehow, Karen Lewis, who is now the most important black labor leader in the country, opposes the interests of the black community in the city of Chicago. Pundits talk about the importance of evaluations to make sure that teachers are accountable, but you don’t see them advocating free childcare provided to parents so that they can actually attend PTA or school board meetings and get involved in school governance. Reformers claim that education is The Most Important Civil Rights Issue Of Our Time, but are somehow able to justify opposition to minimum wage increases or any anti-poverty measures, which even Nicholas Kristof, who otherwise panned the strike, recognized was a significantly better determinant of school success than teachers unions.
The fact that teachers have mobilized a two-thirds majority of public school parents to support them in their struggle is indicative that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the education reform currently taking place in Chicago, as well as with the slash-and-burn austerity policies in place around the nation. The Chicago teachers have also received significant support from other unions, including the police unions. And the fact that they are capable of mobilizing thousands of people for a rally, four days into the strike, in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, means that the Chicago teachers have emerged as one of the most significant political forces in Illinois.
There is a general cognizance among the striking teachers here that they are striking a blow for the preservation of public education nationally. As Boston shows, people are paying attention. The billionaires who want to eliminate collective bargaining, create a for-profit educational system, aggressively punish teachers for the extreme economic inequality that they have benefit from should be careful.