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After Threatening Strike, Chicago Teachers Set “New Standard” With Safer School Reopening Plan

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After defying an order to return to school buildings they deemed unsafe, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to approve a significantly revised plan to reopen elementary schools next month. On Tuesday, 13,681 CTU members (68% of those who participated) voted to approve the agreement, while 6,585 members voted against it. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had attempted to unilaterally reopen K?8 schools on February 1 despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to do so safely, leading CTU members to vote late last month to disregard that directive and continue remote instruction. 

The standoff soon became a focal point in the growing national debate over sending children and teachers back into schools, demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 470,000 people in the United States. 

As negotiations continued into the first week of February, Lightfoot accusedK?8 educators of making unreasonable demands while repeatedly threateningto lock them out of online learning platforms and dock their pay if they didn’t report in-person to school buildings. 

Facing the threat of a lock out, CTU promised to strike in response, and ultimately the mayor and CPS made multiple concessions. 

On February 7, Lightfoot and the union’s negotiating team reached a tentative framework for reopening elementary schools, which, on Tuesday, CTU membership voted to approve. There is still no plan on when to reopen high schools, but CPS has agreed to negotiate that question with the union. 

“Basic safety shouldn’t even be a negotiation, let alone a privilege?—?yet it is in Chicago, under this mayor,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

Under the new plan, in-person learning will now resume on March 1 for grades K?5 and on March 8 for grades 6?–?8?—?a full month later than what the mayor had originally demanded.

After the union called for a health metric to determine when in-person learning might have to be suspended again, CPS agreed to shut down school buildings in the event that citywide Covid cases increase for seven consecutive days at a rate one-fifth higher than the previous week.

The district also agreed not to force educators back into school buildings until after they have had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated, with a plan to vaccinate at least 1,500 CPS employees per week.

While CPS was originally planning only limited surveillance testing, it will now test 100% of in-person employees every week at schools in neighborhoods with the highest Covid rates, and 50% of employees at schools in all other neighborhoods.

In addition, after the school district arbitrarily denied telework accommodations to as many as 85% of teachers and staff who requested them because they live with a medically vulnerable person, CPS agreed to institute clear guidelines for determining when and how such accommodations will be granted.

Finally, the agreement immediately reinstates over 100 preschool and special education teachers and staff who had been docked salary and locked out of their virtual classrooms since early January after they defied a directive to return to school buildings. 

“No one sacrificed more in this struggle than our rank-and-file members who were locked out, docked pay or faced discipline, and we owe them our most profound thanks for making the impossible possible,” Sharkey said. ?“They made CPS finally negotiate. They delayed reopening. They cracked open the mayor’s hypocrisy.”

Lightfoot did not agree to provide backpay to the workers she locked out, something the CTU will continue pursuing through the grievance procedure. In the meantime, the union has established a GoFundMe campaign to financially support them.

While a majority of members accepted the negotiated reopening plan, the CTU made clear it does not endorse the way Lightfoot and CPS have handled the pandemic?—?with 90% of the union’s House of Delegates approving a rare vote of ?“no confidence” in the mayor and school district’s leadership.

“The work isn’t complete, and there are no victories in this moment. There is only surviving a pandemic,” the CTU tweeted.

Some of the teachers who opposed the plan said on social media that they do not believe it goes far enough on safety, nor do they believe it addresses the needs of the vast majority of CPS’s Black and Latino families who are optingto continue remote learning.

“I just voted no. I know a lot of people did amazing work to get CPS even to this point. We are talking about keeping people safe & alive. This plan does not do that. It doesn’t improve remote learning for parents either. I know that parents, teachers & students deserve better,” wrote high school teacher Dave Stieber.

“This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” Sharkey said. ?“We got what we were able to take. CTU members fought hard and sacrificed for this, so we have to protect and use it.”

Though many in the union feel the plan is inadequate, education policy expert Brad Marianno told Chalkbeat Chicago that it’s the ?“most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country” and that it could set ?“a new standard for other districts.”

Teacher unions in other cities are already following the CTU’s example. Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers refused an order to return to school buildings, forcing the mayor to back off on reopening until an independent arbitrator reviews the situation. 

The agreement in Chicago comes the same week that retired CTU President Karen Lewis passed away after a long struggle with brain cancer. Lewis was instrumental in turning the union into a vehicle for social justice, leading a successful strike in 2012 that has since inspired numerous other teachers strikes, kicking off the Red for Ed movement and introducing a new generation of workers and activists to the power of unions.

“Karen would have been so proud of our rank and file: our unity, our democracy, our determination to fight for the common good, and the solidarity at the heart of our strength,” Sharkey said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.


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Chicago Teachers Are Showing the Country How to Fight an Unsafe Reopening

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As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversialplan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.

Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K?8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.

Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached. 

Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.

“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. ?“Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”

Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.

Reopening

The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated

“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. ?“They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”

Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.

“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.

In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District?—?the nation’s second largest public school system?—?is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.

When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. ?“We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. ?“How do we say to those folks, ?‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”

“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. ?“But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”

The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.

“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. ?“This shouldn’t be a fight.”

At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.

Equity

Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hitby Covid-19.

The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K?8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.

Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre?K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction. 

“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. ?“This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”

Pre?K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay. 

“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. ?“My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”

Safety

The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden?—?who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office?—?was asked his opinion about it.

“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. ?“The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”

The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago. 

Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.

Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. ?“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, ?“but we are expected to carry it out?—?despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that ?“CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”

Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils?—?elected bodies of parents, students and teachers?—?have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.

“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. ?“That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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Chicago Teachers Are Voting on Whether to Defy Monday’s Reopening Order

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Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union have just sent a referendum to members: shall we all work remotely starting Monday, January 25?

That’s the date when many were assigned to return to schools. If the district retaliates, delegates will reconvene to take a strike vote.

The plan was voted up by a large majority in an emergency meeting. It’s CTU’s boldest official move yet against reopening; the union has had to walk a difficult legal line.

But militancy has bubbled up from the rank and file. The members who were assigned to return in earlier waves of the mayor’s divisive reopening plan have been organizing their own resistance actions, school by school.

With the pandemic death toll in the U.S. now more than 400,000, Covid positivity rates in Chicago have climbed above 10 percent—double the target rate the city has set for itself—and in some neighborhoods, 15 percent. Yet the city is trying to force its educators back into classrooms.

RESISTING DIVISION

Clerks were ordered back into the school buildings last fall, followed January 4 by pre-K and special needs educators, followed January 11 by their students, to be followed by an ongoing rollout of returns by grade level.

Educators applying for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their own vulnerabilities or those of household members have been rejected at alarming rates.

The entire system is designed to push individuals to make choices for themselves—do I try to get an ADA exemption, or brave the reopening, or quit?—rather than as a collective. But educators are working through these challenges.

Ana Bolotin, a special education teacher, said she was one of many teachers “who felt alone and did not know how to proceed as we were facing bullying from CPS.” She connected via Facebook with others from across the district who were ready to refuse to go into buildings. “Because of the pandemic, we didn’t know each other in real life. All of the relationships were forged virtually,” said Bolotin.

The group called a Zoom meeting, attended by 30 people, and talked about how they could organize to refuse to enter. Their next meeting had 100. These meetings were designed to support people to go back out and organize actions at their own schools.

LOCKED OUT

Staff members at Brentano Math and Science Academy decided that, beginning on January 4—the date they were ordered back—they would bring their laptops and teach from outside the school building.

And that’s what they did, despite below-freezing temperatures. “We are all scared,” said Pre-K teacher Kirsten Roberts. “All of our families have been directly impacted by Covid—by loss and illness.”

So far only pre-K and special needs educators had been called back, but other Brentano teachers turned up throughout the day to support them.

The next day when Roberts attempted to log on to Google Classroom, she was denied access—to her students, her email, and her pay. Management had blocked her.

At Suder Montessori, educators bought their own protective gear and used a CTU-provided checklist to do safety inspections. Educators at other schools donned masks during remote learning so that parents would have a better idea of what students would be experiencing in the classroom.

Some planned to get appointments to test before returning to school, which would require them to stay out of buildings until the results came back negative.

News reports suggest up to 60 percent of the educators who were told to return did not enter their buildings on the first day back.

That’s when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would be cutting off access to remote teaching for any educators like Roberts who were, by district rules, supposed to be inside. As of this writing, some are still locked out; an end to the lockout has been added to the union’s demands.

Still the organizing continued. The key, said Bolotin, “was brainstorming ways to increase solidarity and help people see that individual educators needed to support each other.”

STILL NOT SAFE

Mayors, governors, and other policymakers across the country continue to insist that schools are not sites of Covid infection, even as growing evidence suggests they are wrong. A study in the medical journal The Lancet noted that previous studies showing low or no school transmission had missed asymptomatic students and included schools with low attendance.

Recent reports from around the world suggest that open schools strongly correlate with hospitalizations and community spread. England, Germany, and South Korea initially reopened schools, but have since closed them again in the face of rising positivity rates.

But here in the U.S., where the government has been slow to provide relief for workers, policymakers continue to beat the school-reopening drum. That means educators’ lives are being put at risk—along with the lives of students and their families.

Many of the arguments made for reopening school buildings speak only to the health of students. And some of the most-cited reports of successful reopenings in the U.S. ignore the measures taken—smaller class sizes, robust testing and contact tracing—that are absent in most U.S. schools.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Organizing against the reopenings has been tough for unions. Educators want to do what’s best for students, and everyone can see how inadequate remote teaching is—especially when many families have limited WiFi access and parents are juggling work and childcare. The stream of mixed messages about school transmission hasn’t helped.

CTU has been demanding testing, contact tracing, vaccinations for educators and other school staff, and the enforcement of safety protocols such as adequate protective gear, air-quality systems, and cleaning schedules before educators go back into the buildings.

The union has been holding virtual town halls with educators and providing checklists for building safety. It has garnered the support of 33 aldermen to say it’s not safe to reopen the buildings. Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to negotiate with CTU about the reopening plan.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a law which would make many of the issues involved in reopening mandatory subjects of bargaining. The measure would repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Relations Act passed in 1995 that has allowed the district to refuse to bargain with the union over issues including class sizes, layoffs, subcontracting, and charter schools. That law is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.

COMPETING FEARS

For Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse and Roberts’ partner, solidarity has meant working with members who were both afraid of getting sick and afraid of the district, in varying degrees. “We don’t trust CPS,” he said. So organizing required “finding the place where the person’s fear about the virus and readiness to risk their job met.”

To start, Kosuth struck out alone. He started doing his work outside the school building—checking on students, completing paperwork—and livestreamed it. Over the course of a week, more and more educators stopped by to show support. For him, the present challenge for organizers is, “How do we lead without getting out ahead?” 

Kosuth was one of 150 Chicago school nurses who signed a letter to the district saying that schools are unsafe. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association have backed up their concerns.

While the district is trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, Roberts said the message from the union to students’ families is: “We are exactly like you as workers. We want for you what we want for ourselves.”

‘OUR ONLY POWER’

At the end of the second week of forced return, some CTU members took personal days off and led a car caravan though the streets of Chicago to City Hall and the homes of members of the Board of Education while a board meeting was in session.

“Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education seem to want there to be a corrosive atmosphere,” said Roberts. “In any rational world we would have collaboration. But they are creating a situation where our only power is to show them they cannot run the schools without us.”

Now the proposed January 25 stay-at-home is up to a member vote. A strike threat forced the city’s handback in August and kept schools remote.

Under Illinois law, public sector unions are banned from striking while under a collective bargaining agreement. CTU’s contract expires in 2024. The law also bans the city from locking workers out.

If CTU were to strike, it would be a safety strike. That, notes Roberts, would be uncharted territory.

But so are 4,000 deaths a day.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.


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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.


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What Other Unions Can Learn from the Historic Gains We Won in the Chicago Teachers Strike

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Image result for Jackson Potter"As a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) student from first grade through high school, and in my 17 years of teaching in the system, none of my schools ever had a full-time social worker or nurse every day of the week.

In the first contract the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) secured in the era of legalized public sector bargaining, in 1967, the language states: “a plan shall be devised to make available to teacher nurses a list of vacancies to which they may indicate their desire to transfer.” That language, providing no firm guarantee of staffing ratios, remained virtually unchanged for half a century. All subsequent contracts until 2019 include no references to bilingual education, dedicated staff and resources for our homeless students, case manager positions for our diverse learner population, sanctuary language to protect undocumented students from ICE, living wages for our lowest-paid paraprofessional members, or a dedicated article on early childhood education. Now, that’s all changed.

After 52 years of struggle, and an 11-day citywide strike, we were finally able to secure these critical demands—and more. We won 180 case-manager positions, 20 English language program teachers, full-time staff for homeless students, up to $35 million to lower excessive class size and even nap time for our little ones. This dedicated effort to win seminal staffing supports and educational justice for CPS students did not happen overnight—it’s been a long and protracted fight for the schools they deserve.

During the lead up to the 2019 strike, the editorial pages of the two major newspapers in town, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, took turns slamming us for intransigence, greed and idealism, often in the same sentence. The Sun-Times ran an editorial in the days before the strike that demanded we “Take the deal” and stated we “should accept the latest contract offer from the Board of Education, a sweet deal that most Chicagoans would just love to get.” Prior to the strike, Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered a 16% raise over a 5-year agreement, a salary offer that the CTU eventually accepted. However, none of the central issues raised from when the strike began to when it ended had anything to do with that initial salary offer.

In the last months of 2018, the CTU collected hundreds of proposals from our 27,000 members. Of the hundreds of submissions, many described how to fix a broken and anxiety-ridden teacher evaluation system, how to ramp up preparation and collaboration time, adequate pay and benefits, and more. There were also a number of ideas that went well beyond a traditional collective bargaining agreement. One proposal demanded the school district provide housing for all 18,000 homeless students in the district by creating affordable housing through a real estate transfer tax, corporate head tax and utilizing the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. Despite Mayor Lightfoot’s claims to support a progressive agenda that reflected the CTU’s vision for schools, reality proved more complicated.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to prevent a strike by addressing our key concerns and demands. Yet, during negotiations, her team refused time and again to meet them.

Once CTU went out on strike on October 17, Lightfoot claimed the contract was not the “appropriate place” to address the needs of homeless students. While she promised to add more social workers and nurses to the school budget, she refused to put it in writing and make those commitments explicit within the collective bargaining agreement. By the end of the strike, we made sure that both supports for homeless students and guarantees for more social workers and nurses were indeed put in writing. At the inception of the strike, Mayor Lightfoot was adamant that there was no more money for our contract. But by the end, we won tens of millions more dollars in the new contract.

This contract fight wasn’t the first time the CTU raised “common good” proposals to elevate broader demands not typically associated with a union contract.

In 2010, we suggested that the Chicago Board of Education tap into the TIF program—a system where decades worth of property taxes are frequently diverted from schools, parks and libraries to support developments in the wealthiest parts of the city. At the time, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief negotiator for the teachers’ contract, Jim Franczeck, told us that “TIF is too complicated” and that the funds were unavailable to schools due to a firewall between the city and school budgets.

By 2016, we cracked the purported TIF firewall and forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to unleash a record $87.5 million to stave off a strike. This year, Mayor Lightfoot, followed suit and released another record TIF surplus of $163 million to the public schools.

On top of winning new funding streams, our broader social justice demands built upon victories in the recent Los Angeles teacher strike, as well as Boston’s teacher contract campaign that won language on class size restrictions. In no small way, the 2019 CTU strike was connected to a rising movement of teachers nationally that has fundamentally altered the political and labor landscape in the United States.

When we struck in 2012, the action was largely defensive in nature and came on the heels of Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. This year’s strike represented a move into offense—beyond efforts to stop school closings, vouchers, bankruptcies, pension liquidation or state take-overs. Instead, we’ve added about 750 new positions into our schools, staffing that will dramatically increase investments into our classrooms for the first time in decades. We’ve also added new language that establishes “sanctuary schools,” requiring CPS to prohibit the entry of ICE agents into our buildings unless they have a warrant. The new agreement also provides critical immigration and legal services to our students and their families.

The labor movement will look back on the 2019 strikes in Chicago and LA as the time when #RedForEd began to supplant austerity and corporate reform with educational equity and investments into our Black and Latinx school communities. While we have a way to go before public schools in Chicago match the school funding received by wealthy suburban districts, this agreement gets us closer.

One of the keys to our victory was labor solidarity. Chicago teachers struck alongside the 7,000 school employees in SEIU Local 73, which did not occur in 2012. These school workers also won large-scale victories in their contract, and by standing with us on the picket lines, they showed the power of true collective action.

The victories in our strike built upon years-long efforts to bring Chicago charter school teachers into the CTU, aligning 11 charter school contracts. This strategic choice led to the first charter school strikes in the nation’s history, and won provisions on class-size and sanctuary schools that set the stage to win them throughout the district.

To win more, we teachers should consider partnering with private sector union struggles. Imagine if we had been able to join forces with the United Auto Workers in their labor struggle with GM, or coordinated with warehouse workers to shut down the region’s supply chains? Such an approach could help build the social power necessary to advance a set of regional worker demands to significantly alter the political and economic landscape for all workers.

When I was a first-grader in CPS in 1984, there weren’t social workers or nurses in every school, no case managers, no coordinators for homeless students, and limited adherence to legal limits on special education, bilingual and early childhood state laws. On November 16, over 81% of CTU members ratified a contract that possesses all of those components. While there are many demands we were unable to win, we made massive strides toward equity in the classroom.

Throughout history, social movement struggles have always been protracted. It’s taken three contract cycles for the CTU to turn back nearly 40 years of attacks on our public schools. It’s a shift made possible through strike action coupled with a burgeoning national teachers movement—and taking risks to lift up working-class demands that go far beyond traditional collective bargaining.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackson Potter is a Chicago Teachers Union trustee, member of the Big Bargaining Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards College Prep.

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The Climate Strikers Walked Out of School. Next, Let’s Walk Off the Job.

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Image result for Sydney Ghazarian"This September, the world erupted when over 7 million people?—?young and old—poured into the streets for the Global Climate Strike. The mass action, which made a Green New Deal a top demand, was sparked in the lead-up to Sweden’s 2018 general election, when teen activist Greta Thunberg began ditching school to protest Sweden’s inaction on climate change. Greta, who was already inspiring more student strikes through social media, catalyzed the Fridays for Future movement when she decided to continue striking on Fridays after the general election. Over the past year, young leaders?—particularly youth of color—have been on the forefront of building Friday Climate Strikes into a worldwide student civil disobedience movement, taking aim at the political failure to address the climate emergency.

The logic of the Climate Strike movement was summated by Greta at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019. “Some say that we should not engage in activism, instead we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for change instead,” she said. “But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?”

In other words, Climate Strikes are happening for the same reason labor strikes often happen: Negotiations have broken down. CEOs profiting from the exploitation of workers and the Earth are unwilling to cede to demands that would improve the lives of those affected by their practices. And politicians are unwilling to put the good of ordinary people first.

Like labor strikes, climate strikes are premised on the principle that organizers won’t get what they want just by asking: They have to create the political will for their demands by causing disruption that is impossible to ignore. The use of this tactic signals a shift away from the evidently floundering strategies of online petitions and  behind-the-scenes talks with key decision-makers.

However, labor strikes are more likely than student strikes to be successful for a key reason: Workers are strategically positioned to leverage their collective power because labor strikes halt production and therefore profit-making by employers, which forces their bosses to cede to their demands or lose out. Unlike student strikes, worker strikes cause direct economic impact, which affects what key decision-makers care about most: profit-making and economic conditions that are favorable for re-election. The pathway to victory for Climate Strikers is building an international movement of people acting in their capacity as workers to disrupt the economy significantly enough that politicians are forced to cave to the demand for a Green New Deal.

The challenge is to turn the powerful movement for climate strikes into a movement capable of organizing actual workers’ strikes.

Building towards labor strikes

Teachers have been on the forefront of the recent strike wave, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) may have advanced the movement further when its members passed a resolution stating “that the MTA delegation to the 2019 NEA [National Education Association] Representative Assembly propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.” Unfortunately, NEA delegates voted down the proposal—but that doesn’t mean it’s the end.

One possible route forward comes from Francisco Cendejas, a long-time labor organizer who helped start National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). He suggests that unions could resolve to strike for a Green New Deal if a number of other national unions agreed to do so as well. The simple explanation for this “strike pact” approach is that there is safety in numbers, but the reasoning goes deeper. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and U.S. labor laws overtly favor employers over workers—and place strict parameters around striking. This imbalance has created a mountain of legal barriers preventing an entire union from going on strike—especially for a Green New Deal or other demands for the common good.

However, there are no illegal strikes, just unsuccessful ones. We make them “legal” by winning our demands. West Virginia teachers did this when they launched a successful wildcat strike last year. If many large unions with high-stakes disruptive power can agree to strike in solidarity with each other and their communities, we could have the power to win.

If you belong to a union, you can start organizing support for Climate Strikes and a Green New Deal by introducing a local union resolution in support of each. Passing this resolution will further align the Labor and Climate Movements, and could move your union toward endorsing progressive climate candidates, collectively bargaining for green contract provisions, and showing up to climate actions. Once you pass a resolution in your local union, you can move toward passing a similar resolution at higher levels, like city and county labor councils.

Getting your union to support a Green New Deal or Climate Strikes will not necessarily be straightforward. Unions have different politics, different structures for member participation, and some have been hostile toward the Green New Deal. Additionally, many unions have settled for operating in accordance to a “service model,” meaning they aim to satisfy their members’ demands through handling grievances, lobbying and securing benefits rather than direct pressure on their employers—which diminishes the power a union could have against threats to working class interests. Turning Climate Strikes into a winning strategy will require turning unions into a fighting force. For lessons in how to achieve this, we can examine the successful tactics of Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Towards social justice unionism

When CORE members were elected as CTU leaders in 2010, they forfeited CTU’s service model for a social movement unionism approach, which they first demonstrated in a 2012 strike that centered on the improvement of public education and forming alliances with parents and students. The union’s dedication to bargaining for the common good was on full display during its recent strike, in which union members won a contract securing support staff for homeless students, a declaration of Chicago schools as sanctuary spaces, a cap on class sizes, and a nurse and social worker for every school.

CORE’s continued militancy and success has spread to teachers’ unions around the country through UCORE, including MTA—the union that passedthe resolution to propose a general strike for a Green New Deal. If workers organize their unions to follow CORE’s approach of rank-and-file democracy, community alliances, and using bargaining power to win demands for the common good, they could build labor support for a Green New Deal and even align unions around a “Climate Strike Pact.”

If you are not part of a union, you can gain inspiration from the 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant” mass strike. Immigrants and solidarity strikers were able to participate due to the protection of “concerted activity” included in the National Labor Relations Act. Legal protection of concerted activity allows union and non-union workers to act collectively to improve the terms and conditions of their work, which is something a Green New Deal could do. With less than 12% of U.S. workers belonging to a union, this protection holds particular importance. However, some employers might still try to fire workers for participating, which means we would need to mobilize workers and the broader community around protests, public shaming and boycotts targeting the offending employers until they cave and rehire the workers.

The bottom line is this: Climate Strikes can win a Green New Deal by building community and Labor alliances around demands for the common good. We can leverage our power as workers through high-impact, disruptive labor strikes that halt the economy’s gears until politicians can no longer ignore us, and are forced to cede to demands that will save the world.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sydney Ghazarian started the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ecosocialist Working Group and is a member of its current Steering Committee. She is also a climate organizer and an advisory board member for The Trouble. You can follow her on Twitter @SydneyAzari

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Chicago Teachers Didn’t Win Everything, But They’ve Transformed the City—And the Labor Movement

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Chicago teachers and staff returned to the classrooms Friday after more than two weeks on strike. Their walkout lasted longer than the city’s landmark 2012 strike, as well as those in Los Angeles and Oakland earlier this year.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike also lasted long enough for the season’s first snowstorm to blanket thousands of teachers and staff who surrounded City Hall Thursday morning to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot agree to restore missed instructional days as a final condition of their returning to work. After a few hours, the union and the mayor arrived at a compromise of five make-up days—a move Lightfoot had resisted until the eleventh hour, despite the fact that it’s a standard conclusion to teacher strikes.

Over the course of an often-bitter battle, CTU and its sister union, SEIU 73, overcame a series of such ultimatums from the recently elected mayor. Before the strike, Lightfoot had refused to write issues such as staffing increases or class size caps into a contract at all. Following a budget address last week, Lightfoot vowed that there was no more money left for a “bailout” of the school district. But a tentative agreement approved by CTU delegates Wednesday night requires the school district to put a nurse and social worker in every school within five years and allocates $35 million more annually to reduce overcrowded classrooms. Both unions also won pay bumps for support staff who have made poverty wages.

Yet these substantial gains still fell short of what many members had hoped to achieve, given that they were fighting for basic investments already enjoyed by most suburban school districts—investments that Lightfoot herself had campaigned on this spring.

“It took our members 10 days to bring these promises home,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told reporters after an agreement was reached over instructional days. “But I want to tell my members: They have changed Chicago.”

Members of SEIU 73 ratified their contract this week, and CTU members will now have 10 days to do so. But the impact of the two-week walkout is likely to extend far beyond the contracts themselves.

During daily rallies that drew tens of thousands of teachers, staff and supporters, the unions repeatedly made the argument that there was plenty of wealth in the city to invest in schools and public services—it was just concentrated in the wrong hands. They also touched on what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions, criticizing the resources lavished on police at their expense. The strike’s momentum will carry over most immediately into a budget battle with Lightfoot, with the teachers’ union partnering with a larger coalition fighting to tax corporations and luxury real-estate at a higher rate in order to fund affordable housing, public mental health clinics and other services.

The teachers union also shone a light on an opaque financing tool known as Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, that’s intended to funnel additional property tax dollars to “blighted” areas, but that critics say is akin to a “corporate slush fund.” On Tuesday, nine CTU members were arrested at the headquarters of Sterling Bay to protest the city’s decision to award the Wall-Street backed developer more than $1 billion of TIF subsidies earlier this year.

“That day in and of itself was huge because we were able to call out the city’s hypocrisy,” says Roxana González, an 8th-grade teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy who was among those arrested. “The fight to fund what our communities need is a much longer one than our contract fight, and teachers across the city are going to continue to be a part of it.”

The two-week walkout will also likely have reverberations for teachers and other union members outside of Chicago. The CTU’s 2012 strike helped inspire a national network called “Bargaining for the Common Good” that has brought together unions seeking to expand the scope of contract bargaining beyond pay and benefits.

“In many ways this was both the toughest and most visionary strike fought yet on the principals of Bargaining for the Common Good,” says Joseph McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

“The union engaged in some effective popular education about the structural issues of school underfunding that it can follow up on in the future. Although it was a difficult fight, the CTU has come away with gains that will make the schools better and encourage teachers elsewhere to fight for similar things.”

One of CTU’s boldest “common good” demands was for affordable housing—a move that captured national headlines and became a centerpiece of the mayor’s narrative that the union was stalling negotiations through an overly political agenda.

While the union didn’t win on housing assistance for new teachers or gain the school district’s support for rent control, one of CTU’s earliest and clearest victories was an agreement to hire staff specifically to support the more than 17,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools—an approach that could be a model for other school districts.

Other key wins on social justice issues include new guarantees for bilingual education, including more dedicated teachers for English language learners, and a declaration that Chicago schools are sanctuary spaces.

These are vital issues in a school district where nearly half of students are Latinx and nearly one-fifth are English language learners, says González, who also helped push for these changes as a member of the CTU’s Latinx caucus. She has previously faced a lack of resources and the potential for discipline when she tried to aid a former student who reached out to her for help with a pending deportation case. As part of the new agreement on sanctuary schools, the school district will create a training program for staff on how to respond to ICE presence in schools and assist immigrant students. It will also allocate up to $200,000 annually to help employees navigate immigration issues.

The victories are less clear-cut when it comes to the key issue of support staffing. The district will begin hiring more nurses and social workers in the highest-need schools this year, but it will take five years before they’re guaranteed for every school. And while the CTU has highlighted that nine out of 10 majority-black schools in Chicago do not have a librarian, the agreement creates a joint union-school district committee on “staffing equity” that will provide a path—but not a guarantee—for high-need schools to hire additional librarians, counselors or restorative justice coordinators.

Some teachers say they were prepared to continue striking until more progress was made on staffing, smaller caps on class sizes and regaining teacher prep time eliminated under previous Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But facing an intransigent mayor, worsening weather and a November 1 deadline for the suspension of their employer health insurance, CTU delegates ultimately voted on Wednesday night to approve the tentative agreement by a margin of 60%.

Class size remains a particular concern for instructors like Jeni Crone, an art teacher at Lindbloom Math and Science Academy. While CTU won for the first time an avenue to enforce hard caps on class sizes, the recommended limits themselves remain the same: Up to 31 in high school classes, depending on the subject, which can reach 38 students before an automatic remedy is triggered.

Crone previously taught at Kelvyn Park High School, but lost her job there in 2017 amidst a round of budget cuts that led to the loss of 11 positions at the school. She says she repeatedly saw high class-size caps used as justification to merge two smaller classes into one larger one. Before her position was cut, her three art classes were combined into two, with 34 and 35 students, respectively.

“It’s one of the easiest ways for CPS to save money,” she says. “But we should be normalizing smaller class sizes.”

Still, Crone says she is “cautiously optimistic” about the contract’s wins, and is determined above all to make sure that union members remain united with students and parents to continue demanding more.

“I am not totally content, but the way I see it, it’s OK for us not to be content,” Crone says. “That means I still want better for my students, and we should always want better for them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Chicago teachers reach tentative agreement but one key thing is missing to end strike

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The Chicago Teachers Union reported a tentative agreement with schools management Wednesday night, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is holding up the end of the strike in a disagreement over make-up instructional days. In previous strikes, the schools have added make-up days to the end of the school year—but Lightfoot doesn’t want to do that.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey spoke highly of the tentative agreement, saying in a statement that “This deal will move us closer to ensuring that our most vulnerable students receive the instruction, resources and wraparound services they need to thrive. No educator wants to leave their classroom, but our 10-day struggle was the only option we had to enshrine, ensure and enforce real change for our students and school communities. This contract will put a nurse in every school, a social worker in every school and provide a real solution for thousands of homeless students in Chicago.” But, he said, “By not restoring days of instruction to our students lost during the strike, the mayor is making it clear that she is more concerned about politics than the well-being of students.”

Lightfoot objects to the make-up days because teachers would be paid for those days, saying “I’m not compensating them for days that they were out on strike.” Which is … not what would be happening since they would be working those days, but way to try to score a cheap political hit on your way out!

Lightfoot and schools management had supposedly been very concerned about instructional time (at the expense of the prep time teachers pressed for), but apparently that wasn’t really such a concern. The teachers also expressed frustration at Lightfoot’s admission that “There’s a lot of work that we could have done sooner, but we didn’t start to do really until the strike”—making her own lack of preparation in large part responsible for the length of the strike.

The teachers report that the agreement includes 209 additional social workers, 250 additional nurses, investments in staff education and recruitment, $35 million a year to reduce class size, and added funding for sports coaches and equipment.

The agreement has been accepted by the union’s House of Delegates, which would allow the strike to end if an agreement can be reached on make-up days. The CTU’s full membership would then vote on ratifying it. On Wednesday, school staffers in SEIU 73, who went out on strike with the teachers, voted to ratify their own contract.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 31, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Chicago Teachers Are Carrying the Torch of Decades of Militant Worker Struggles

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“I solemnly swear that I will never stop fighting for my students.” This hand-made picket sign, one of hundreds at an October 25 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU 73 rally, sums up what makes the teachers’ strike so important. In an approach CTU pioneered during its 2012 strike, the 25,000-strong CTU refuses to draw a firm boundary between justice in the workplace and justice for its students. For the union—under the leadership of the leftwing Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators—affordable housing is a bargaining issue because roughly 17,000 CPS students are experiencing houselessness. And so is the shortage of school nurses, counselors and librarians—along with the corporate and hedge-fund pillaging of a city beset with deep poverty and racial segregation.

Thanks to an Illinois law passed in 1995, the city isn’t legally required to bargain with CTU over issues beyond pay, benefits and hours—a fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and local media outlets repeatedly cite. But the idea is that, by building community support and staging disruption, the teachers can expand the boundaries of what’s politically possible and force the city to bend to its social justice demands. As CPS teachers and staff have chanted while marching through Chicago’s streets, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”

Such efforts to expand what is considered a bargaining issue are often referred to as “bargaining for the common good,” a term popularized by the 2014 creation of an organizing network by the same name. But before that term caught on, the tradition was known as “social justice unionism”—or, as veteran labor organizer and writer Jane McAlevey emphasizes, plain ole’ working-class organizing. “This is not new,” McAlevey tells In These Times. “As long as there have been really good trade unions, there have been fights that blur the lines between workplaces and communities—that address the core needs of rank-and-file members at work and at home. Good organizing has always been good organizing.” As organizer and writer Bill Fletcher Jr. puts it to In These Times, “Social justice unionism involves the transformation of unionism from an instrument of workplace power solely, into a vehicle for worker power more generally.”

Examples from U.S. history show that worker power can be achieved by reaching out across shopfloors, building with community groups, and acting in solidarity with oppressed people in other parts of the world. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in Chicago in 1905, called for the creation of one big industrial union, irrespective of shop or craft—or gender or race. This principle was put into practice during the Lawrence, Mass., textile strike of 1912, also known as the Bread and Roses strike. It was started by Everette Mill weavers—immigrant women who were furious over a pay cut after a Massachusetts law shortened the workweek for women. The work stoppage spread to nearly every mill in Lawrence, where textile workers hailing from more than 51 countries staged an industry-wide shutdown during a brutally cold winter—buoyed by the organizing of the IWW. The workers eventually won a 15% wage hike and an increase in overtime pay.

History looks kindly upon such workers who organized across workplaces—and struggles. During World War II, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) opposed the mass internment of Japanese and Japanese-American people, at a time few others were willing to speak out. As labor historian Peter Cole notes in his book Dockworker Power, in 1942, ILWU leader Lou Goldblatt said in sworn testimony before Congress, “This entire episode of hysteria and mob chant against the native-born Japanese will form a dark page of American history.”

Created in 1943 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) became a significant force in the Civil Rights and Black Freedom movements. In 1950, the union established an Anti-Discrimination Department aimed at stopping racism in hiring—and segregation in local communities. The union gave robust—and early—support to key racial justice campaigns, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. At the 1957 founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, UPWA Vice President Russell Lasley said it was “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship.” The union merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968.

The Bay Area’s Local 10 of the ILWU, a union that survived being purged from the CIO during an anti-communist crackdown in 1950, went on in 1984 to refuse to load or unload South African cargo, in solidarity with the anti-apartheid boycott. In 2008, 10,000 ILWU members shut down 29 ports on the West Coast demanding an end to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, Local 10 shut down the port of Oakland, Calif., in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

A matrix of U.S. labor laws seeks to narrow the scope of worker organizing. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, designed to quell labor unrest, prohibits striking as long as a contract with an employer is in place—a tradeoff for securing bargaining rights. Yet, these bargaining rights are drawn narrowly: The Act also says wages, hours and working conditions are the only mandatory subjects of bargaining for private-sector workers. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, imposes further restrictions, including a ban on wildcat, jurisdictional and secondary strikes. And the 1959 Labor Management Disclosure and Reporting Act says secondary strikers can be held liable for damages.

But by building power, workers can transcend these limits: Rank-and-file West Virginia teachers demonstrated as much in 2018, when they went on strike in a state where public-sector strikes are illegal—and then stayed out on strike after union leaders and the governor announced the strike was over. And indeed, Lightfoot eventually agreed to bargain with CTU on social justice issues, thanks to teacher pressure.

The principle that worker power—and not labor law—should determine the shape and scope of labor struggle is especially poignant now, as the world hurtles into an ever-worsening climate crisis that is driven by the capitalist class in industrialized countries but disproportionately harms the poor and working classes, particularly Indigenous communities and people in the Global South. The global climate strikes in September saw 4,500 school walkouts and protests in 150 countries, with most actions led by young people whose lives will almost certainly be shaped by environmental catastrophe. While the movement uses the word “strike,” it’s fallen short of organizing mass-scale work stoppages, although some unions have supported the protests—and some workers have walked off the job. A climate labor-strike, in which workers withdraw their labor, would be the greatest possible social disruption—and therefore the ambitious social justice unionism we need to meet the urgency of the moment.

It’s a difficult road from here to there, but Chicago’s intrepid educators are teaching us that an old tradition is still relevant, and its principles remarkably straightforward. As Nicole Bronson, a striking special education teacher told me as thousands of striking workers gathered at a rally downtown, “This is about giving back to the community that gave to me.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Chicago teachers say 0.5% of the schools budget stands in the way of ending their strike

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Chicago teachers say that just half of one percent of the Chicago Public Schools budget is between what they would accept to end their strike and the city’s current offer. That’s $38 million as the strike closes schools for a ninth day. Not only that, the teachers point to nearly $100 million of costs that have been moved from the city budget to the schools budget.

“The payment for police in our schools, $33 million, which has traditionally been paid for by the city, was shifted to the schools; a pension payment that has traditionally been paid for by the city has been shifted to the schools,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates told Chicago Tonight. “So you have nearly $100 million of cost-shift from the city to the school budget at a time when we need it, at a time when the city is now, clearly, balancing their budget on the backs of our students.”

Another key issue is 30 minutes a day of prep time that elementary school teachers lost under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to CTU, “Teachers used that time to contact parents, grade papers, prepare lesson plans and update curricula, reducing the amount of unpaid labor they put in outside of the work day. While CPS counts that half hour as ‘instructional minutes,’ for many teachers that time is spent wiping up spilled milk and cleaning up after students as they eat their breakfasts in the classrooms.”

SEIU Local 73, which represents many school support staff from custodians to classroom assistants, has reached a tentative deal to end its strike, which started alongside the teachers strike.

Meanwhile, over in Massachusetts, teachers in Dedham won an agreement and unanimously ratified it after just one weekday of strike. It was the first teachers strike in 12 years in the state, where public workers are legally prohibited from striking.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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