Chicago Teachers Strike for Us All

I believe the Chicago teachers strike is an important stand in the battle to improve, even save, public education in the United States. As Karen Lewis said, "This fight is for the very soul of public education, not just only Chicago but everywhere."
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First I want to clarify what I mean by us all. I believe the Chicago teachers strike is an important stand in the battle to improve, even save, public education in the United States. The strike, if successful, will benefit teachers, students and parents, not only in Chicago but across the entire country, as well as both unionized workers and non-unionized workers. This strike has the potential to go down in history along with other labor actions, such as those in Homestead, Lawrence, Paterson, Ludlow and Flint that ultimately built the union movement in the United States and transformed life for what used to be known as the working-class but what politicians today euphemistically refer to as the middle class. That is why I strongly support this strike and why I am wearing a red t-shirt to work in support of the teachers and public education.

Of course everybody cannot be included in the "all." Conservatives as always are quick to take an anti-union stance. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly denounced the teachers' union for having interests in conflict with those of the children. So did Chester Finn, head of the right-leaning Fordham Institute, who charged that teachers unions continued to strongly resist change.

The mayor of Chicago is clearly not part of the "all." He seems determined to break the strike and the Chicago teachers union. Others who oppose the strike are the self-proclaimed educational reformers and their corporate and financial allies whose real goal is to break up the public school system in Chicago and the rest of the country in order to privatize and profit from its demise.

Some people will get to choose which side they are on, but they may have to make their choices quickly, especially if hey hope to get reelected in November with labor support. So far the Obama administration has distanced itself from the dispute. In the past, Obama depended on union support for manpower and money. But in many ways this is a strike against Obama administration policies, particularly its Race to the Top program that is trying to impose an evaluation system that many teachers and school-based administrators find unwieldy, unfair and inaccurate. The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, was formerly Obama's chief of staff and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who is charged with implementing Race to the Top and the new teacher assessments, formerly headed the Chicago school system.

I recommend that President Obama take a look at the Chicago Teachers' Union website because it may be the only place he can learn the teachers' side of the story, which in this case I see as the real side of the story. The Chicago Teachers' Union demands would benefit both parents and teachers while establishing fair play for workers. They are concerned that a new evaluation system mandated by Race to the Top "could result in 6,000 teachers (or nearly 30 percent of our members) being discharged within one or two years." Chicago teachers, as well as teachers and school-based administrators, are "concerned that too much of the new evaluations will be based on students' standardized test scores. This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control."

A second major issue, of concern to all working people in today's employment market, is job security. "Despite a new curriculum and new, stringent evaluation system, CPS proposes no increase (or even decreases) in teacher training." The union is also concerned over the rights of teachers who are displaced when schools are reorganized.

The union makes clear that it does not unilaterally oppose school reform.

"We stand in solidarity with parents, clergy and community-based organizations who are advocating for smaller class sizes, a better school day and an elected school board. Class size matters. It matters to parents. In the third largest school district in Illinois there are only 350 social workers -- putting their caseloads at nearly 1,000 students each. We join them in their call for more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians and school nurses. Our children are exposed to unprecedented levels of neighborhood violence and other social issues, so the fight for wraparound services is critically important to all of us. Our members will continue to support this ground swell of parent activism and grassroots engagement on these issues. And we hope the Board will not shut these voices out."

Among other things, the chronology supplied at the website makes it clear that the strike could have been avoided if Chicago school officials and the mayor seriously addressed teacher concerns. In June, an independent fact-finding commission found that Chicago wanted teachers to work 20 percent longer without a corresponding increase in pay. The fact-finding commission also recommended "a general wage increase of 2.25 percent for School Year 2012 -- essentially a cost of living increase" and "an additional increase of 12.6 percent to compensate teachers for working a longer school day and year representing a combined first-year increase of 14.85 percent." Although the teachers' contract expired at the end of June, negotiations between the Chicago school administration and the teachers' union were stalled all summer. Finally, in compliance with Illinois state law, the union filed a 10-day notice with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board of its intent to strike on August 29, 2012. The reason parents were caught by surprise is that while the union acted responsibly, the city administration did not take the strike threat seriously and prepare for contingencies.

Unfortunately, among the major players in opposition to the strike is the New York Times, where it has become virtually impossible to distinguish between editorials, commentary and news articles. It's editorial on the strike was titled "Chicago Teachers' Folly" and argued that the strike is a "senseless," "unnecessary," "personality clash" led by a union leader "basking in the power of having shut down the school system," that not only would the strike hurt the children of Chicago but it would undermine the credibility of teacher unions. The lead article on the first page took a similar tone, focusing not on the issues but the "edge" displayed by Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union. She is described in the news article as "biting, pushy, witty, unwavering" and her "toxic relationship" with the mayor is blamed for the strike. Meanwhile an op-ed article by Joe Nocera described the strike as a battle between unions and educational "reformers," although reform usually means to improve, not destroy.

The Nocera piece is particularly ill-informed. He makes the point that "in Bloomberg's New York, where the pushback from the teachers' union was fierce, the teachers never went on strike." Nocera seems unaware that in New York State, unlike in Illinois, strikes by public employees are illegal. When New York transit workers went on strike in 2005, the union was initially fined a million dollars a day for every day the strike continued. Later, Local President Roger Toussaint was jailed for 10 days, the union was assessed $2.5 million in fines and the automatic deduction of union dues from the paychecks of union members was suspended.

A new Illinois state law does place some restrictions on strikes by public employees and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pressed to have this strike declared illegal. The teachers' union , however, has so far countered with its own legal team and opinions. Because the Chicago teachers are legally able to strike in some cases, they are standing up for workers, parents, and students in localities where strikes or even unions are severely restricted.

The Chicago Teachers' Union President Karen Lewis made a clarion call that resonates with me and should resonate with anyone who supports public education and genuine school reform. At a rally in Chicago she declared, "This fight is for the very soul of public education, not just only Chicago but everywhere. We did not start this fight, but enough is enough." To that I say, "Amen"!

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