Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall
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Sadlowski gave a wry welcome to his part of town, once known for union struggles like the dark moment in 1937 when Chicago police fired on striking steelworkers during a Memorial Day protest, killing 10. Sadlowski recalled that as a boy, he thought the graphite that floated through the air from U.S. Steel's South Works mill, and ruined the laundry on the clothesline at his family's apartment, was as natural as snow. South Works is gone now, and the air is a lot cleaner, he noted. "They didn't shut down steel because of a pollution issue, or thinking about you as an individual and your health. They shut down steel by virtue of the technological advances in that industry. They did it to make more money."
The closure of South Works in the 1980s created a chain reaction of economic decline and a spike in poverty. The plant has since been razed, with its site given over to the Lakeside development project, a 45-year plan to create the "ultimate urban experience" of green—and expensive—residential and commercial property. The aim is the creation of a satellite downtown Chicago, the crowning achievement in the ongoing gentrification of the South Side lakefront. This real estate grab has displaced tens of thousands of African Americans since the 1990s and led to the closure of multiple schools on the South Side. Like many other development projects in the city, Lakeside will rely on Tax Increment Financing (TIF), in which the city diverts property taxes from schools and libraries to subsidize real estate development projects. That policy has steadily drained the CPS budget, hastening budget cuts and school closures. It's no coincidence that the man spearheading Lakeside plans to include a charter school on the site.
In 2011, that promise of future local prosperity seemed very far off to those living and working in South Chicago and the wider Southeast Side. The area's most abundant remaining resource was inexpensive houses, which in the last three decades drew an influx of immigrants, mostly from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries but also from many other parts of the world. For teachers in the area, the changes have brought the challenge of meeting the needs of English language learners, whose families often face economic hardship. Elementary schools in the area are overcrowded. The CPS solution: Build a new elementary school on a heavily polluted industrial site purchased from a family member of a former alderman who'd served time in prison.
The travails of the Southeast Side weren't news to the teachers who turned out for Sue Garza's solidarity rally. So Ed Sadlowski moved on to his main point: The looming teachers' battle was the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle of working people in Chicago and beyond to defend not just their own livelihoods, but the wellbeing of future generations. A central issue, he said, were the wars that drained tax dollars from public education. The goal of the labor movement, Sadlowski said, should be "making a world where no one is hungry. Making a world everyone is accepted as a human being. Making a world that we will be not be ashamed of."
After the rally, Sadlowski said he wasn't bothered by the mayor's threats. "Rahm Emanuel is the bully at the end of the bar who talks tough and keeps everybody scared," he said. "But the minute someone stands up to him, he'll run away."
When the CTU did stand up—for teachers, for students, and for public education in Chicago and beyond—Emanuel backed down. The union prevailed by linking its fate to a wider working class struggle by focusing on controversial issues of race and class, subjects that labor unions usually avoid. When politicians used their standard script for bashing public employee unions—attacking the CTU as an overpaid and self-interested group unconcerned about the needs of children—Chicago teachers pushed back.