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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis: "Victory for Education" Comes from Strike

Chicago public school students returned to class Wednesday after the governing body of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to suspend its nine-day strike, the first teachers’ strike in Chicago since 1987.

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AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you comments by two Chicago teachers who participated in the strike. James Cavallero is a special education teacher in Chicago.

JAMES CAVALLERO: We’d like to see our class sizes be smaller. We’d like to see more wraparound services, so more social workers, more nurses, other services that our kids can get. In special ed, we’d like to see, you know, more special ed teachers hired so that we can really benefit those kids that really need as much one-on-one attention and even in just smaller group attention.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Garth Liebhaber, a fifth grade teacher in Chicago, speaking about the impact of the strike.

GARTH LIEBHABER: We’ve gained dignity. We’ve gained respect for our profession and for our school communities. We have regained unionism and what it means for working people. Today, our struggle has not just been about simply a contract, because a contract is worthless unless there are people to enforce it. This has been about returning power to where it belongs: amongst the working people and the communities they serve.

AMY GOODMAN: Two teachers talking about the strike. We’re joined by Karen Lewis. She is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, just came out of the negotiations. Their responses, what they have said, what this meant for the teachers, as well as parents and students. What’s been fascinating, watching this from afar and then coming in to Chicago, is the level of support you had, even though kids were out and teachers were scrambling, overall, from the community.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah. Well, we’ve been working on that for quite some time. I mean, before we ever gained office of the union, we worked very hard against the school closings that had been going on. And we have reached out into the community, worked with parents, worked with students, and when you build relationships like that, it just grows. So, to us, the whole idea of a union movement in school means you have to have all the stakeholders there. And that’s something that’s been missing, I think, from people in general across the country, that unionism has been sort of like the school system: it’s been very top-down.

And the two gentlemen that you actually spoke to are on our big bargaining team. So we had—we had members from all over the city in different areas—high school, grammar school, our paraprofessionals, our clinicians—all on our big bargaining team, so that they could actually see the process of negotiations, that it wasn’t like a little room with just two or three people in it just haggling out, you know? So that made a difference, too, because people felt involved. And it was also the reason why we were not able to come to an agreement on Sunday night, because people had not seen the language. And because of the lack of trust between the staff and management, they really wanted some time to look at that agreement, as opposed to just looking at a framework. So, it took them a couple of days, and it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guest is Karen Lewis. She’s president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "Back to school." That’s the word today all over Chicago. And we’re going to talk about what this means for the country. Chicago is an incubator for what is called school reform around the country. What does this strike mean? Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Rebel Diaz, Rebel Diaz singing "Chicago Teacher." Rebel Diaz are graduates of the Chicago public schools. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re on the road in Chicago on our 100-city tour. I’m Amy Goodman.

 
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