7 days that shook the Windy City: Chicago's teacher strike
"The CTU is teaching the USA a lesson in working class love and solidarity. It’s a transformational moment for the membership of the CTU and its allies. How can they transform the horn honks, the raised fists, the friendly waves and the kind words of encouragement into a political force to be reckoned with?"
It was of course, more than a Chicago teachers' strike; it was a city-wide working class protest. Parents and concerned community members walked the picket lines. Workers of all types who passed in their trucks, buses, taxis and passenger cars joined in with honking, friendly waves and fist raising.
There was serious carb-loading and elevated caffeine levels for days as strike sympathizers brought muffins, cookies, donuts, pop and coffee to picket lines. Labor professor Steve Ashby organized a scheme (originally used in the Madison uprising) where strike supporters called in pizza orders to help feed the legions of volunteers who came to the Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) Strike HQ in the Teamsters hall on the West Side.
In response the mayor and his allies launched an expensive propaganda campaign against the strike that even the best efforts of the CTU and its allies could never match in its reach and scope. TV and radio ads blasting the union were all over the air waves. The local corporate owned news media was almost uniformly hostile. The national media was no better.
Their money was wasted in Chicago's working class neighborhoods. Chicagoans backed the teachers by a substantial majority. As CTU president Karen Lewis put it,“Let’s be clear — this fight is for the very soul of public education, not just only Chicago but everywhere.”
Volunteers from Wisconsin and as far away as California worked long hours stapling picket signs, painting banners, selling tee-shirts and collating strike materials, necessary tasks to keep a strike of 26,000 workers going. One day a United Airlines pilot in full uniform showed up to volunteer her time stapling picket signs. I restrained an impulse to salute her.
Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) social media whiz Kenzo Shibata went sleepless in Chicago to get the message out in the 24-7 endless news cycle. Stavroula Harissis energetically directed the social media team for the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC), a close ally of the CTU and an outgrowth of Occupy Chicago.
Striking teachers and their numerous allies on the picket line enjoyed sharing the many morale-boosting photos, inspiring YouTube videos, hilarious memes, and informative articles that the social media teams posted. From across North America and around the world messages of solidarity poured in as social media workers struggled to keep up with the sheer volume.
The strike required both tough negotiating and a organizing battle plan
While CTU president Karen Lewis,VP Jesse Sharkey and the other top leadership were huddled with the legal team and negotiating with the Board of Ed, the CTU's organizing director, Norine Gutekanst, a veteran Chicago teacher, oversaw the complex logistics of the strike. She arrived well before dawn at Strike HQ to ensure that the 26,000 strikers and their allies received the materials, info and inspiration they needed.
Armed with her laptop, cell phone, an art gallery worth of constantly updated wall charts; plus a small army of CTU staffers and regional strike coordinators, she and her team exemplified the old WWII saying, "The difficult we do today. The impossible may take a little longer."
The current CTU leaders come from a rank and file caucus called the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE). With a history going back to 2008, CORE has a clear vision of union democracy, quality education and social justice. Organized from the ground up, teacher by teacher, school by school, CORE offers a new paradigm for Chicago’s labor movement, which has many members, but very little actual movement.
CORE’s model challenges the Chicago labor tradition of back room deals and topdown union leadership. The democratic way that the membership was involved in all aspects of the strike sent a clear message that this was a labor uprising as well as an educational policy rebellion.
The rising of the women is the rising of us all
The strike was also, as feminist Gloria Steinem noted early on, very much of a women's uprising:
“As an 87% female workforce, and one that is nearly half Black and Latino, the Chicago Teachers Union know what their students need. This is why this country needs unions, collective bargaining, and mayors who recognize, honor and fairly pay the people our children know – and who know our children.”Many of the striking teachers were also moms. I saw many strollers being pushed and children being led by the hand in the massive teacher marches through downtown. It was mostly the women of the neighborhoods who joined the teachers on the picket lines and brought snacks to the strikers. They organized activities to keep the children busy with educational tasks and went door to door explaining the issues of the strike and why it was a strike FOR children not AGAINST children.
As a result, CTU President Karen Lewis came under blistering sexist attack as Derrick Clifton of Northwestern University explains:
"Discussions often drifted away from teachers’ demands, becoming referendums on Lewis’s perceived femininity, appearance and attitude.Reuters characterized Lewis as the “fiery, frumpy former teacher leading Chicago’s striking teachers.”The sexist and racist attacks on Lewis and her union are only a part of a multi-million dollar attack on public education led by some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the USA. Among them are Bill Gates of Microsoft fame and the Walton family who owns Walmart. An amazing number of Wall Street hedge fund operators are behind the charter school privatization movement. David Brain a multi-millionaire real estate mogul, was asked what business his clients should invest in:
That’s while online comment boards flooded with denigrating characterizations of Lewis like “Java the Hut” or a “potential left tackle on the Chicago Bears’ offensive line.” Others pulled out the ages-old stops used to dismiss feminist and female leaders as hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians..."
“Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.”A few of these people are motivated by some ill conceived and misguided ideas about education, but most are simply in it for the wealth that can be extracted from public funds and from the labor of teachers whose unions have been weakened or even broken.
The corporate bullies did not get the last word
In Illinois the bullies include billionaire financier Bruce Rauner, whose money helped push through legislation making it nearly impossible for teachers to directly negotiate the most important part of their job, a quality education experience for students. Wealthy lobbyists even pushed through legislation that made it illegal for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike unless the union received a 75% authorization. No other teachers union in the state has that restriction. The corporate bullies were surprised when the union received over a 98% authorization of those voting, something the bullies thought was impossible.
It was a massive repudiation of the whole corporate "educational reform" project and its unscientific "teach-to-the-hi-stakes-test" curriculum, its neighborhood school closings, its privatization of education and its ugly propaganda campaign against union teachers.
When a Stanford University team studied the corporate reformers charter school nostrum, they found that charters often did worse than public schools, sometimes better and most of the time showed no difference. Where charters did do better, couldn’t public schools have equaled or surpassed them if they had the smaller class sizes and the resources that get lavished on the charters?
Decades of corporate failure preceded this historic strike
Anyone who has studied the history of corporate school reform in Chicago knows of its repeated bumbling failures dating back to the early 20th century. This is well documented by Dr. Dorothy Shipps in her book School Reform: Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000:
"To a remarkable degree, Chicago's corporate leaders have shaped the city's schools while constructing its economic and downtown development priorities, its response to racial segregation, and even its urban mythology. The same corporate club whose leaders' persistence impressed me in 1991 has led, abetted or restrained nearly every attempt to improve the school system in the 20th century...if corporate power was instrumental in creating urban public schools and has had a strong hand in their reform for more than a century, then why have these schools failed urban children so badly?"
Why Chicago's working class backed the strike
Chicagoans backed the teachers by a substantial margin, documented not only by the honking horns and raised fists, but by two polls taken during the strike. Parents with children in the public schools were even more supportive of the teachers. Black and Latino parents were the most supportive of all, while whites backed the mayor by a narrow margin. Today, only 8.8% of Chicago public school students are white.
The disparity between the gleaming new schools in the affluent whiter areas of Chicago and the neighborhood schools in the poorest Black and Latino working class communities was there for all to see. For retired Chicago teacher and former assistant principal Steve Serikaku poverty is THE issue:
"I know how hard it is to work in Chicago. It’s almost laughable the budgets neighborhood schools are given. When you’re in a poor area, the needs of the students are so great that the school alone cannot address them, but we don’t have the resources to bring in qualified people—like social workers and psychologists—to address the issues.In Chicago as in other major cities, poverty is heavily racialized. A significant number of the white working class have left the city for the suburbs and people of color make up a much greater proportion of Chicago's working class today. Whites, by and large, tend to be more affluent, especially as gentrification gallops across the areas adjacent to the downtown Loop area.
I can understand why parents want to get away from certain neighborhood schools, but I would rather that the school system and the city work to prevent the kind of damage that is done to children from poor areas. To me, it’s a cruel farce to have No Child Left Behind when we leave whole neighborhoods behind."
Every dollar that goes to the corporate leeches is a dollar the Chicago public schools never receive
The big banks and corporations who push gentrification and school privatization must bear heavy responsibility for the poverty that afflicts the city. They demand huge tax breaks and public subsidies. They turn TIF funding (Tax Increment Financing), which is supposed to help the poorest neighborhoods into a financial bonanza for themselves. They often pay poverty wages and outsource good jobs away from the city.
Penny Pritzker, who sits on Chicago’s school board, is part of the wealthy Pritzker family who owns the Hyatt hotel chain. There is a Hyatt going up in South Side Chicago right now that received a major public subsidy. Hyatt is also engaged in a nasty union busting campaign against its own workers, trying to drive down their wages and push them into the ranks of the working poor.
Chicago's bitter racist past
Chicago is the city where Martin Luther King had rocks thrown at him in Marquette Park for protesting segregated housing. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated in his bed on the West Side by police after being drugged by an undercover informant. Hampton had been organizing a multiracial “rainbow coalition” of disaffected working class young people to confront poverty and racial division.
It is the city where in 1919, a bloody pogrom was launched by racist whites after a black swimmer drifted into the “white” area of Lake Michigan’s ironically named Rainbow Beach. The riot eventually cost 38 deaths and 537 serious injuries.
During the 1960’s blacks launched massive demonstrations and boycotts protesting school segregation and classroom overcrowding. Black teachers went on strike in 1968 against the Board of Education whose racist administrators consistently failed blacks in oral examinations to prevent them from gaining full certification.
During the 1980’s when Harold Washington was twice elected mayor, Chicago was dubbed “Beirut on the Lake” because of its bitterly divided racial politics. I was teaching in a Catholic school in a then all-white Southwest Side neighborhood when Washington was declared the winner of the mayoral race. Every single black parent kept their kids home the day after the election for fear of racial violence.
This brutal history is a tragedy worthy of a Shakespeare or a Sophocles, a working class divided by race and at war with itself. Chicago’s ruling elite has always profited off of ethnic division and the color line has been the most profitable of all. The ideology of white supremacy is what maintains their vast wealth and power.
The financial elite profits off of destroying neighborhood schools
Today Chicago neighborhood schools in the poorest black and brown communities often limp along without libraries, science labs, computer labs, music, world languages or art as teachers struggle with overcrowded classes.
Students in neighborhoods torn apart by street violence and the crushing burdens of poverty do not get the social services and counseling they so desperately need. Some students exhibit the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but have nowhere to turn in their despair and rage. Some of the worst violence has come in communities where neighborhood school closings have created even more social turmoil.
The corporate school reformers put these neighborhood schools on a bread and water diet, then scream failure in order to close them and create private schools in their place. CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley doesn’t even bother to hide that fact:
"If we think there's a chance that a building is going to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it's unlikely it's going to continue to be a school, we're not going to invest in that building."The closing of neighborhood schools is closely linked to the gentrification of Chicago neighborhoods and the generation of profits for the banking, real estate and construction industries. This is explained in Dr. Pauline Lipman’s book The New Political Economy of Urban Education:
"In Chicago and other cities, policies to close schools and replace them with schools targeted to the middle class are integral to both production and consumption of gentrification. Closing schools pushes existing residents out of neighborhoods primed for for gentrification. The new schools that replace them, like new police stations and libraries, are key to attracting new investment, and once real estate development is underway, they are part of place marketing the area to a new class of home buyers."Just who is this middle class they want to bring back to the city?
Particularly since the death of Mayor Harold Washington and the ascension of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the mantra for City Hall has been to bring the middle class back to the city. It is well understood that “middle class” is a euphemism for the affluent white professional middle class. They don’t mean the white people who once toiled in the steel mills and assembly plants closed down by the USA’s corporate elite during the terrible days of the Reagan 1980’s.
This being the 21st century, the affluent middle class of color is included as can be seen in the gentrification of the Bronzeville neighborhood, but the real prize is making Chicago a whiter wealthier city. Making gentrification largely white and affluent is easier now because the disastrous 2008 economic meltdown hit middle class people of color like a financial Katrina. As an example, white wealth is now 20 times that of black wealth.
But why look to the affluent white middle class who decamped to the suburbs? Call me crazy, but aren’t there many thousands of people (mostly of color )living in abysmal poverty right here in Chicago who would love to get an honest chance at joining the middle class?
So why the hell aren’t City Hall and the LaSalle Street financial elite directing investment into economic development for the people who already live in Chicago and really need it. Why not raise their income levels and improve their neighborhoods? Parental income is the best single indicator of likely school success, so why not raise those?
This of course would also mean investing serious money in the schools to create what the Chicago Teachers Union calls “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” the name of the union’s educational reform plan that has been ignored by the corporate owned media.
It is a bitter irony that nation’s wealthy elite, who think outsourcing and poverty wages are sound business practices, and whose casino capitalism caused the 2008 financial crash and the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis, now want claim ownership of our schools.
CTU activists love to to remind the public that Mayor Emanuel’s kids go to the uber-expensive University of Chicago Lab School, whose principal is no fan of hi-stakes testing and believes that, “Physical education, world languages, libraries and the arts are not frills. They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education.” The student-teacher ratio at Lab School is 10 to 1.
If that is good enough for Rahm’s kids who live on the city’s North Side in Ravenswood, then why isn’t it good enough for the students in East Garfield Park, Grand Crossing, Little Village, K-Town, Uptown or Englewood? Just askin’.
Resistance to educational apartheid was at the core of the strike
The answer was given by CTU Black Caucus leader Brandon Johnson at a post-strike forum on Chicago’s West Side where he and other strike leaders assessed what they had learned from the Seven Days in September. Mincing no words, he named the corporate attacks on schools in black and brown communities as educational apartheid, with all of the savage cruelty that the word implies.
He also spoke about a conversation he had with legendary West Side educator Dr. Grady Jordan who told him early on, “Black teachers fought hard. This is a direct retaliation to what we built in the 60's and 70's. They're trying to kill you, son. What are you going to do about it?”.
According to Johnson, 45% of Chicago’s teachers were black in 1995. Now it is down to 19% with less than 2% being black males. This shocking decline is mostly due to school closings and the spread of charters. Many of their replacements have been young inexperienced white teachers, the teachers most favored by charter school operators. This is a direct attack on the already precarious financial status of the black middle class.
Given these grim racial realities is it any wonder why there was such an outpouring of support from black and brown working class people? The CTU’s efforts spotlighting educational apartheid have also inspired many whites. People have come to view teachers as advocates for their communities, an honor to be sure, but one that also comes with great responsibility. The CTU has a community board made up of 20 of their neighborhood and labor allies across the city, allies who push the teachers into militant action in defense of neighborhood schools.
During the walkout teachers talked about what the strike meant for the aspirations of Chicago’s working class and for the teachers across the nation who expressed solidarity. Just the act of wearing a CTU red shirt on the street, in the local coffee shop or on the El platform was cause for people to start intense conversations, not only about education, but about their own struggles in our so-called economic recovery.
This was a strike based on a deep love for the city and its people
Across the city, postal workers, cops, firefighters, nurses, janitors, technicians, social workers, bus drivers, rapid transit operators and many other workers are asking the following question, “How did the teachers do it and how can we replicate that at our own workplaces?”
These are questions that demand answers and people are already meeting around the city to grapple with them. I am sure of one thing, Chicago now has something of great value, a multi-racial working class movement the likes of which could transform not only the schools, but become a urban liberation movement with national implications.
But one swallow does not make a spring and one strike does not make a revolution.
CTU Chief of Staff Jackson Potter looks at the struggle this way:
“This next period is really critical. There are a lot of dangers and opportunities ahead and it will determine in no small part whether all of us can do something with this momentum.”
Bob "Bobbosphere" Simpson is a retired Chicago high school teacher who taught on the city's South and West Sides. He spent the the 7 days of September volunteering at the CTU Strike HQ.
Now We Know Our ABCs, and Charter Schools Get an F by Paul Buchheit
Sexism and the Chicago Teachers Union Strike by Derrick Clifton
Displacement, segregation, safety: Chicago schools have a long ways to go. by Yana Kunichoff
Gloria Steinem supports Chicago teachers on strike by Gloria Steinem
Corporate Agenda Behind Public Charter Schools By Aaron Regunberg
Students Suffer in Low-Performing Charter Schools by Karen Lewis
CPS: Poorer-performing schools less likely to get funds by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
“I See Everything Through This Tragedy” by Alex Kotlowitz