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Chicago Teachers Uprising Takes on a 1 Percent Mayor, and the Labor Establishment to Boot

As the clock ticks down to the strike deadline, Chicago teachers remain steadfast in their fight to protect public education.

Photo Credit: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia, Creative Commons


Chicago teachers could hardly be more united in their disgust at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s assault on public education. More than 98 percent voted to authorize a strike, which union activists say is as much about defending students and parents as it is about the economics of their contract. And while school has already started in the Windy City, the nation’s third largest school system could be shut down by next week, setting off a confrontation between a militant rank-and-file teacher movement and the mainstream of the labor movement and its allies, the Democratic Party.

Mainstream media have focused on the economic issues, the union’s rejection of 2-percent raises and merit pay, as the meager raises would be offset by cuts to healthcare benefit concessions. But what makes this possible work stoppage different--the first big-city teachers strike since a 16-day walk-out in Detroit in 2006--is that the union is making this a fight in defense of parents and students. “It’s central to who they are,” said Steven Ashby, a professor at the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago who has been consulting for the union.  “Fighting for smaller class sizes, a social worker in every school, a nurse in every school, pretty much what all the suburban schools have.”

The countdown to a strike is a showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union’s reformist president Karen Lewis--who was elected in the summer of 2010, ending decades of top-down leadership--and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention as Chicago was preparing for a strike. The stand-off is a wake-up call for unions who every election year throw their time and energy into electing Democrats, who happily accept union funds and use members as door-knockers.

CTU bargaining committee member Sarah Chambers explained that the union's united effort to authorize a strike was emblematic of the anger toward the Emanuel administration’s spending on charter school expansion and dedication to testing. Chambers estimated that the city spends $100 million on charter school expansion and that “if you took just half of the money for charters we could have an entire city of small class sizes.”

The issue of class size has been key for getting parent’s support; a union study found that Chicago public school class sizes were among the highest in the state of Illinois. “Reducing class sizes can lead to improved teaching and learning,” Lewis said in a statement. “In a smaller classroom, a teacher has more time to get to know each student's academic strengths and weaknesses; students receive more attention and teachers can spend more time helping students learn and working with parents.”

Indeed, a Chicago Tribune poll found in May that a majority of voters believed that if teachers were to work longer, they should get paid more. “Sizable majorities of Chicago residents as a whole (86 percent) and public school parents (92 percent) agreed with that concept,” the paper reported. It also noted that, “Among all respondents, 40 percent sided with the union, compared to 17 percent who backed Emanuel.”

Progressive education activists criticize the corporate reform approach because it focuses so much on numbers-based testing, which along with merit pay encourages teachers to “teach to the test,” rather than engage in critical thinking. Charter school advocates have painted teachers unions as the road-block to reform, but skeptics note that charters thrive on cultivating young teachers who burn out quickly, while unions offer teaching as an actual career.

While charter school advocates say students perform better under a privatized environment, educators question the integrity of their metrics, many of which rely on testing. One of the most vocal of these critics is Diane Ravitch, an early pioneer of the charter school movement, who argues privately run schools were meant to augment public education, not replace the whole system. Michelle Rhee, a heroine of the corporate reform movement as the head of the Washington D.C. school system, fell into hot water when the city launched a probe last year into allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests.