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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.

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Barrett was a founding member of the progressive group  CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) that won leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union in a hotly contested 2010 election. Since then the union has pushed back hard against city plans to close schools and increase the number of charters.

According to Barrett and many other teachers, tensions intensified after Emanuel took office in May 2011.

“He is ridiculous,” said Jeanine Trize, who has worked as a teacher’s aide in the schools for 22 years. “How can you come into a system you know nothing about and without working with the teachers and students just start changing things? We don’t have money to put our kids in private school like he does. We should be the ones deciding what happens in the public schools, not him.”

Barrett grew up around the labor movement. His mother was a National Education Association organizing director in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and his father is a labor historian. He got his first taste of teaching in the JET program in Japan, where he taught English and human rights. He started at the Chicago public schools in 2006 and became quickly disillusioned with the union leadership. When other young progressive teachers invited him to participate in what would become the founding meeting of CORE--“just 10 people sitting around a small table, where we chose the name and everything"--he was excited that “I had found a cool group of troublemakers who could help offer something new to students.”

In 2009 he was  chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education; in 2010 he was fired by the Chicago schools. He says the principal told him it was because his students were skipping class–of their own volition–to attend Board of Education meetings about planned school closings. So Barrett turned his energies to working for the union.

Barrett was one of the last to believe that CORE taking leadership of the union was a possible or a legitimate goal. But as CORE members became increasingly vocal in union business, the group rapidly gained popularity and converts. Their victory in the  2010 union elections was seen as a sign that teachers were hungry for leadership more willing to stand up to the city administration and the Board of Education. Now, they are possibly on the cusp of the union’s first strike in a quarter century, with nearly 90 percent of union members  voting in June to authorize one.

“I was just in Europe–in Belgium and England–and people were talking about this, it’s international news,” said special education teacher Sarah Chambers outside the delegates meeting. “I was also in New York, and lots of teachers were talking about it. And in Puerto Rico. They say if we go on strike, they will be here to support us.”

After about two hours, teachers started walking out of Lane Tech into the packed parking lot. They seemed energized and determined. When Lewis appeared toward the tail end of the crowd, teachers clustered around her and cheered.

The delegates had voted to grant her the authority to give 10-day notice for a strike. Whether she will do so in coming days remains to be seen, depending how contract negotiations go. Teachers leaving the meeting refrained from talking about what happened inside or the vote, but they unanimously expressed the sentiment that they are being driven to extreme measures by an administration they believe is intentionally picking a fight with the union rather than trying to resolve challenges facing the schools through a democratic process.

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