From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Chicago’s Teachers Are Making History. Again.
Date October 21, 2019 4:09 AM
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[Rank-and-file workers are finally taking back their unions, and
strikes are spreading across the country as a result.]
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Jane McAlevey
October 15, 2019
The Nation
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_ Rank-and-file workers are finally taking back their unions, and
strikes are spreading across the country as a result. _

Members of community group Parents 4 Teachers display pro-teacher
posters outside City Hall in 2012 in Chicago., AP Photo/Sitthixay


The beginning of a resurgence of strength among America’s unions
today can be traced to two seminal events: the September 2012
seven-day strike by Chicago’s teachers, and the less-noticed June
2010 internal union election at the Chicago Teachers Union. That was
when a slate of progressive, forward-thinking educators won all the
top seats inside their union, ending nearly three decades of
do-nothing unionism at the third-largest teacher’s union in the
country. Jackson Potter, a teacher and one of the architects of that
victory—and the subsequent strike—told me back in the fall of 2013
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“Our ability to connect with the community has been key for us. But
I worry about our ability to have much success over the long run if
there aren’t other worker-led insurrections.”

Potter and 26,000 coworkers helped set the stage for the Chicago
strikes, but they couldn’t have predicted the ensuing string of
successes toward rebuilding a high-quality public school system,
driven by educators from West Virginia to California. The strike that
many people regard as the kickoff—the February 2018 West Virginia
teacher’s strike—can also be traced back to Chicago. Despite a
four-decade general assault against workers and unions, and a specific
and especially vicious two-decade attack against America’s teachers,
when the Chicago teachers walked in September 2012, the public sided
decisively with them—and against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Suddenly,
expectations were raised that workers could fight, even strike—and
win. Now with a strike date set for October 17, the focus returns to
Chicago’s educators.

Much has changed since 2012, but one factor is refreshingly constant:
The teachers’ union remains bottom-up, democratic, resilient and
strong. Two other groups of workers in two different units,
represented by SEIU local 73, have also voted to authorize strikes on
October 17. These additional workers include an important group in the
Chicago Public Schools, the 7,500 special-ed classroom assistants,
security guards, bus aides, custodians, and parent workers, and a
second group of 2,500 workers in the Chicago Park District. That
group, which has never authorized a strike before, is comprised of
supervisors, attendants, lifeguards, landscape laborers, and
instructors. Taken together, that’s 35,000 workers whose day jobs
are about empowering children—not to mention allowing the 180,000
parents of Chicago’s nearly 400,000 public school students to go to
work. All this has set the stage for a massive crisis in America’s
third-largest city.

Gone is the right-wing anti–public education, anti–teacher union
billionaire governor, Bruce Rauner (though, given the preposterous
nature of campaign finance laws in the United States, the new governor
is also a billionaire, albeit a less hostile one). But in the
driver’s seat sits Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “I think there are a ton
of differences, not the least of which is I’m not Rahm,” she
recently said.

Perhaps more important, there’s more money on the table for these
contract talks. In large part, that’s due to the diligent efforts of
the CTU itself, which won a substantial change in state education
funding. The funding formula now puts more money into the poorest
school districts, a reversal of the formula in force the last two
times the CTU’s contract expired, Potter told me. The teachers also
added to the schools’ budget by winning state and local funding for
their long-neglected pension, as well as local funding for future
increases. Combined, Potter said there’s now over $1 billion more a
year for Chicago’s schools. The CTU is demanding restaffing
Chicago’s schools with nurses and guidance counselors, and more
robust social services to help the poorest students in a school
district that primarily serves students of color.

“We feel it is our responsibility to figure out how to get the
nearly 20,000 homeless students in our schools housed,” says Stacy
Davis Gates, a high school social studies teacher and the current vice
president of the union. “There is no way in the world you can expect
the students to keep it together in a classroom, to take a test in a
classroom, to complete homework in a classroom, if they don’t have
what they need in terms of a stable home environment.” Although
Lightfoot likes to point out she’s “not Rahm,” she’s actually
retained the same chief contract negotiator as Rahm and many mayors
before him. In fact, the current chief negotiator for the Chicago
Public Schools, Jim Franczek (of the private law firm Franczek P.C.)
has been the lead negotiator against front-line educators for decades.
“I understood from an early age that it is management that makes
things happen,” Franczek said in a 2015 interview, “and I wanted
to make things happen.” Which just underlines the fact that it will
be the mayor whose actions will ultimately determine whether the
strike happens on the 17th.

According to members of the union’s negotiating team, Franczek’s
style is to try to force victory for his side by holding back on
serious settlement options till the very last minute. His strategy,
repeated over many contracts, is to force a narrowing of the subjects
that will get addressed by the educators, and then, with hours to go
to a strike deadline, suddenly make a “take it or leave it,”
offer—frequently with some things educators want—but far less than
students or the broader education community needs and deserves. When
you read mainstream press coverage of the dispute, it’s worth
remembering that it’s management playing brinkmanship with the lives
of hundreds of thousands of people, not the union.

A nearly identical management strategy failed this year in the Los
Angeles teachers strike. After four days of robust picket lines, an
outpouring of parent and community support and an all-out strike,
Mayor Eric Garcetti summoned the head of the teacher’s union, Alex
Caputo-Pearl, and, the LA Schools superintendent, Austin Beutner, to
his office. Beutner told them to “narrow the topics to settle,”
Caputo-Pearl told me. Instead, Caputo-Pearl insisted, “This strike
won’t end until you expand the issues to include our proposals such
as ending random searches, a green new deal, contractual provisions to
help parents of students being threatened by ICE deportations, and,

In Gates’s view, despite the media’s obsession with the mayor and
other individuals exchanging often heated comments to the media,
“This is not about the people who are in charge as much as it’s
about the systems of white supremacy that persist in every American
institution and that must be dismantled in order for real justice and
real equity to take place. And what we are seeing in this moment is
that the institution is reluctant to release the resources that a
school district with over 90 percent students of color deserve.”

There have been last-minute offers: negotiations this past Saturday
that resulted in management moving slightly on some core demands of
the educators; they have also promised what sounds like big
numbers—$2 million over the next five years for school nurses. Mayor
Lightfoot repeatedly stresses that she’s made an offer for large
raises—16 percent over five years—but wages aren’t the key issue
in this contract fight. They rarely have been, in the education
strikes that have rocked the nation for the past two years.
Educators—along with nurses and health care workers—have been
walking off the job in record numbers, demanding that the superrich
and corporations begin paying their fair share of the cost of
democracy and keeping Americans in good health.

And while Mayor Lightfoot believes she’s got a mandate for her
actions, she has said over and over
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she can get a deal done. Her chief negotiator’s tactics might just
bring an end to the honeymoon she’s still enjoying post-election,
because a strike would likely result in a recently empowered Chicago
City Council
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on her every move should the popular educators and their allies at
SEIU be forced out onto the streets.

The strikes that spread from Chicago across the nation are happening
because energetic, smart rank-and-file workers are finally taking back
their own organizations—their unions—after too many years of
risk-averse leaders whose unwillingness to use the strike weapon
contributed to the downfall of the working class. Many teachers in
Chicago are stellar educators: After an eight-year stint as a
full-time leader of the union, Potter has returned to the high school
classroom to teach eleventh-grade classes on “the theory of
knowledge, civics and modern world history.” But it’s not just
students at his school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood who
benefit. Perhaps the most important lesson Chicago’s educators have
taught us is that to build a country where policy makers favor the
supermajority rather than the 1 percent means a return to massive,
supermajority strikes. It is only through such strikes that we can
rebuild the solidarity desperately needed among workers—and between
workers and the broader society. Strikes are to democracy what water
is to life: not a distraction or a disturbance but the foundation.

_Correction: This post has been updated to correct a quote that was
initially attributed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti during a meeting
with the head of the LA teacher’s union. According to a source who
was present at the meeting, it was actually said by Austin Beutner,
the LA Schools superintendent._

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_Jane McAlevey is The Nation's strikes correspondent. An organizer,
author, and scholar, she is currently a senior policy fellow at the
University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center. Her third
book, A Collective Bargain, Unions, Organizing & the Fight for
Democracy, will be published by HarperCollins in January._

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