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Big Rumbling in Chicago as Teachers Move Toward Historic Strike

The teachers are possibly on the cusp of their first strike in a quarter century, with nearly 90 percent of union members voting in June to authorize one.

Photo Credit: Chicago Teachers Union via Flickr


Editor's Note: We've been following the teachers' union fight in Chicago closely because of its potential ramifications--a showdown between a well-known Democratic mayor who is often emblematic of the wing of the party that's closest to Wall Street and furthest from its roots with working people, and a progressive union that won't back down. Teacher-union-bashing has become far too common in both parties, and the attacks on the people who educate our kids led to full-scale attacks on collective bargaining rights in states across the country in recent years.  A strike in Chicago has national ramifications, as the union-busting tactics honed in Chicago have spread around the country, and a big move here could lead to more action.

We'll be keeping you updated. Enjoy this piece from our friends at In These Times.  

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

CHICAGO–There was palpable excitement in the air as teachers in red union T-shirts streamed into the formidable stone-and-brick structure that is Chicago's Lane Tech College Prep High School on the evening of Aug. 22.

Inside, delegates from schools across the city would vote later that night to give union president Karen Lewis the authority to give the 10 days notice required for a strike. The majority of schools start the day after Labor Day, Sept. 4, so a first-day strike requires notice by early next week.

An advance battle has already begun at the district’s “Track E” institutions, which are back in session despite a sweltering heat wave and a lack of air conditioning in many classrooms. This week the union has been printing up strike posters in preparation and holding  informational pickets at the Track E schools.

Meanwhile, district administrators distributed a  memo to principals asking them to report union activity such as work slowdowns, “sick outs” and “other job actions that undermine supervisory authority and deleteriously affect the mission and goals of the Chicago public school system.” On Aug. 22 the Board of Education  voted to authorize spending $25 million on “student safety” and student meals in case of a strike.

The fight over a longer school day for Chicago students has largely been resolved. To lengthen the school day without requiring teachers to work longer hours, the district will hire more teachers. But contract negotiations are still not going well, according to the union, with the two sides at loggerheads over issues such as salary, class size and teacher evaluation by student performance.

“This has been really hard, because none of us want to go out” on strike, says bargaining team member Susan Hickey, a clinician.

Xian Barrett, who teaches law and Chicago history at Gage Park High School in a rough neighborhood on the city’s South Side, says, “From day-to-day working with kids, I hope there’s not a strike.”

But he sees the struggle in a bigger context. “In terms of caring about these students’ long term futures, and the future of their kids and their kids’ kids, I think a strike is a necessary step in taking the schools back.”

Like many teachers, Barrett sees the fight over contract issues as part of a larger battle over the whole shape of public education in Chicago, including whose voices are heard and whose interests are served. In Chicago, as in many cities, union teachers and many parents are speaking out against the growth of non-union charter schools, the evaluation of teachers based largely on student performance on standardized tests and the closing of “under-performing” neighborhood schools. Union leaders and progressive education experts say that the Chicago school system has become more corporate and top-down and less responsive to teacher and parent concerns ever since 1995, when the mayor’s office was given control of the system. 

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