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How to Resolve the Chicago Teachers Strike? Tax the Rich.

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The past year of bold worker action in Chicago—which included the nation’s first charter school strikes—is now headed towards a crescendo as teachers and support staff prepare to walk off the job on Thursday.

Despite the city’s attempt to box negotiations into being just about salary, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is bringing a holistic approach to bargaining to benefit both their members and students. This means bringing common good demands such as affordable housing and sanctuary schools into the contract negotiations, because CTU knows that the crises outside of the classroom directly affect student learning.

This approach also means making demands about how the schools our students deserve can be paid for, which is why community organizations, labor unions such as CTU and elected officials have worked together to put forward the #ReimagineChicago budget proposal. Our plan does not rely on increasing fines, fees, sales taxes, and property taxes on the working poor and middle class—as has so often been the norm in Chicago. Instead, we have laid out a package of progressive revenue solutions to counter decades of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities, and ensure that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

This proposal amounts to a sharp break from how Chicago finances have long been handled—and a fundamental shift in who is prioritized in the budget. Nowhere is this clearer than in our fight for the reinstatement of the corporate head tax.

A head tax is a city tax on corporations that scales to the size of the company. Chicago previously had a head tax in place from 1973 to 2014, but it was eliminated by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, making clear his economic priorities. Partly to help make up for the lost revenue from eliminating the head tax, Emanuel closed half of the city’s public mental health clinics, devastating thousands of patients, among other cuts to vital city services. Our improved version of the head tax would generate more than enough money to reopen all of the public clinics, while helping expand affordable housing and creating jobs on the South and West sides.

As we wait to hear what Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts forward in her first budget, we know that the mayor and city council have the power to act on our proposals right now—which could generate $771 million in new revenue. Other progressive taxation proposals would require coordination with the state government, but they could bring in up to $3.9 billion, totaling $4.6 billion in new revenue. These solutions include a Real Estate Transfer Tax which would raise $150 million, a Luxury Goods and Services Tax which would raise $300 million, and a city income tax on incomes over $100,000, which would bring in a whopping $1.4 billion. This funding could address Chicago’s growing housing crisis, enable a full-time nurse in every school and create racially equitable conditions that would allow all Chicagoans to thrive.

The “bargaining for the common good” approach being taken up by CTU represents a two-fisted strategy to win the schools and neighborhoods that Chicago working families deserve. On one hand, Chicago teachers are forcing the city and the school system to codify commitments to improve Chicago schools by writing them into their contract. On the other, unions are working with community groups to win the money to pay for those improvements through progressive revenue solutions that make the wealthy pay their fair share, instead of regressive taxes and fines on working families.

Mayor Lightfoot has resisted on both fronts, claiming CTU should only bargain over salary and that the union’s demands to create equity in the school system would drain city resources. She’s also resisted committing to raising the revenue needed through our proposals. Yet her newly appointed school board passed a spending increase that nearly doubled the amount of money spent on Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers in the public schools, and for the first time put into writing a contract between the school system and CPD that mandates more police access to our schools without detailing where this new spending would come from.

Candidate Lightfoot ran on a progressive platform, especially around education, but as mayor, she’s acting in opposition to that agenda on a number of issues. Creating task forces instead of putting affordable housing commitments in writing is not enough. Taking the side of wealthy developers like Sterling Bay, and fighting organizations like ours—Grassroots Collaborative—that are organizing to win radical changes to the city’s broken Tax Increment Finance system flies in the face of her progressive commitments.

Taking on entrenched wealthy elites requires progressives in Chicago to fight on multiple fronts. This teachers strike is about more than just a contract—it’s about reimagining what is possible for our city if we tax the wealthy and put those resources into the hands of working people instead of the politically connected. As Chicago teachers and support staff take bold worker action to win a just city for all, we should rise to the moment and join them in the fight for a more just future.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amisha Patel is the Executive Director of the Grassroots Collaborative and Grassroots Illinois Action.

About the Author: Nathan Ryan is Communications Director at Grassroots Collaborative.


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Chicago Teachers Won Public Support for Their Strike. Here’s How.

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As 35,000 Chicago teachers, school support staff, and park district workers are set to begin a major strike on October 17, they boast the backing of students, parents, community organizations, and local unions who see the potential work stoppage as a crucial battle in the fight for a more just and equitable city. Thanks to the solidarity efforts of community and labor groups, more Chicagoans support the possible strike than oppose it, according to a recent poll by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot—who was elected this year on a progressive platform—to put in writing her campaign promises to improve the learning conditions of the city’s majority Black and Brown public school students. Among other things, the unions are fighting to have a full-time nurse, librarian and social worker in every school, caps on class sizes, affordable housing for students and their families, an end to outside contracting of school services, and better pay and benefits.

For their part, Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have urged the CTU to give up demands for better resourced schools and accept a 5-year contract that primarily includes wage increases. The editorial boards for the city’s two major daily newspapers have lined up behind the mayor, telling teachers to “take the deal,” though a whopping 94% of CTU members voted to authorize a strike.

“It’s so vital we not allow CPS or the mayor to divide the critical people in this equation—which are students and parents—from the unions, which they would like to do,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, co-chair of the Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign (CTSSC)’s labor committee.

“If CPS and the mayor are able to create a wedge between the union and the community, it’s going to be a far less successful strike, so it’s about bringing those forces together,” continued Lalasz, who is also a steward with National Nurses United.

To bolster support for the CTU and SEIU Local 73, the CTSSC has held multiple events to bring teachers and community members together by having discussions about the conditions in the schools and the importance of the unions’ demands. One such event was an October 10 town hall featuring speakers from over a dozen community organizations and local unions.

One of the speakers was Catherine Henchek, member of the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers. She explained that when her son enrolled in CPS as a kindergartner 12 years ago, she was told that he wouldn’t be able to get his medication every day because the school only had a nurse once per week.

“Twelve years later, we’re still fighting for this,” Henchek said. “So many schools do not have a nurse, or they have agency nurses that are coming in, a different nurse every day. That’s not helpful for kids with complex medical needs. They need someone who knows them.”

At an October 14 rally of union members and supporters, high school senior Miracle Boyd talked about why union demands for improved wraparound services matter to students like her. “We as CPS students have to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one to gun violence every day,” said Boyd. “We need trauma-informed schools, social workers, and therapists.”

Boyd is an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led anti-violence, restorative justice group. “I have friends who miss school on the daily because… no one can help them with the hurt and pain of losing a classmate,” she said. “The resources students don’t have won’t allow them the opportunity to heal from past or continuous trauma.”

The CTSSC has existed since CTU’s historic 2012 strike, when it mobilized community turnout at rallies and pickets, coordinated the union’s strike headquarters, and served as an information hub. Since then, and increasingly over the past 20 months, a wave of massive teacher strikes has rocked the country—offering innovative examples of community solidarity that are now being replicated in Chicago.

One such example is Bread for Ed, a fundraising and solidarity project to provide meals to students and teachers for the duration of the strike. This program would provide a critical service, as over 400,000 Chicago students depend on school meal programs for breakfast and lunch.

Pioneered by the East Bay, California chapter of Democratic Socialists of America during the 7-day Oakland teacher strike this February, the Bread for Ed model has been adopted by Chicago DSA and Chicago Jobs with Justice. The two groups recently set up a Bread for Ed GoFundMe page, surpassing the original fundraising target of $10,000 in only three days. If a strike happens, food will be prepared and served at neighborhood organizations, aldermanic offices, churches, and local restaurants, as well as on picket lines.

“So far the response [to Bread for Ed] has been overwhelmingly positive. Tons of people are reaching out wanting to get involved,” Abby Agriesti, co-chair of the Chicago DSA Labor Working Group, told In These Times. “We want to make sure that the media and city can’t use the lack of food for students as a cudgel against the teachers and staff, blaming them.”

Community supporters also worked with the unions to hold an Art Build from October 4 to 6—another model borrowed from this year’s Oakland teacher strike. Held at CTU headquarters, the Art Build brought rank-and-file union members together with parents, students, allies, and artists to put their creativity to work by making picket signs, banners (including parachute banners), and posters to be used at strike pickets and rallies.

The CTSSC has organized weekly call-ins to the mayor’s office and drafted an online solidarity statement for individual union members around the country to sign onto, which garnered nearly 500 signatures within a week. The solidarity campaign is also circulating a statement of support pledging to join CTU and SEIU members on the picket lines, which has been signed by over 60 community and labor organizations across the city.

Meanwhile, members of Chicago DSA’s Labor Working Group have canvassed at CTA stops to talk with commuters about the importance of the unions’ demands and to inoculate them against anti-union talking points.

“The unions aren’t just bargaining for better wages or pensions; they’re bargaining for vital things that we need in our communities.” Agriesti explained. “We see this as hand-in-hand with our mission as socialists to build a better world.”

Efforts to build community support appear to be working, as indicated by the Sun-Times poll. The poll found that 49% of Chicagoans were likely to back the strike, while 38% would be opposed. A quarter of those polled are CPS parents, who overwhelmingly support the unions and would blame Mayor Lightfoot if there is a walkout.

If the work stoppage happens, the CTSSC plans to mobilize turnout on the picket lines through its email and text message list, as well as its social media accounts, which reach thousands of people. For parents, the coalition Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education has created a webpage with information on what families can do during the strike, including how to support the unions.

“Most parents don’t want a strike, we want our children to be in school, to be learning,” Henchek said. “But we know that if we’re going to have the wraparound services, the class sizes, the social justice that our children deserve, then there may need to be a strike.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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Bernie Sanders to Chicago Teachers: Worker Militancy Is Key to Fighting the Corporate Elite

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When Chicago teachers led a historic strike in 2012, they boasted the critical backing of the public—but high-profile political allies were hard to come by. With then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the teachers’ nemesis, national Democrats stayed far away from the fight, and even a number of so-called “progressive” city council members opposed the walkout, including the now-disgraced former 1st Ward Alderman Proco ‘Joe’ Moreno who referred to the strike as “selfish.”

On Tuesday night, a very different scene was on display inside the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020—headlined a raucous rally to support the teachers in their ongoing contract fight with new Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Sanders was flanked by union leaders, community activists and a number of the city’s newly-elected democratic socialist aldermen, all of whom pledged to back the teachers. As Sanders stated as he took the stage, “I think that the Chicago school board should be very nervous.”

The Chicago visit marked a continuation of Sanders’ unique approach to his second presidential campaign, in which he’s not just supported labor battles, but positioned them front and center—manifestations of the political revolution he aims to foment. He has utilized his vast email and phone lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and directly targeted bosses such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in order to raise workers’ wages. He has joined rallies of striking workers—as he plans to do Wednesday in Detroit to back the UAW’s ongoing strike. And, fundamentally, he has used his campaign as a vehicle to propel the revitalization of a militant U.S. labor movement.

But these aren’t acts of beneficence. To Sanders, an invigorated movement of the working class is the only way to achieve the type of bold redistributive policies that are central to his campaign, from Medicare for All to the cancellation of all student debt.

As Sanders stated at the teachers’ rally Tuesday, “For the last 45 years there has been a war in this country by the corporate elite against the working class of our nation.” And, he continued, “the only way to win prosperity for working people is when we significantly increase membership in trade unions all across America.”

“It’s about dignity”

Tuesday marked the first day of voting among CTU members on whether to authorize a strike, which could begin as soon as October 7. The union, which claims over 25,000 members, must reach a threshold of 75% of ‘yes’ votes to ratify a walkout. If recent history is any indication, that won’t be a herculean task. Ahead of the 2012 strike, nearly 90% of all CTU members who cast a ballot voted to walk out. In 2016, the figure was even higher—close to 96%—though that action was ultimately narrowly avoided.

Contract negotiations have reached an impasse over demands by teachers for more wraparound services and classroom resources at city schools. The union claims that there remain far too few librarians, social workers, counselors, nurses and paraprofessionals to adequately staff the district’s 514 schools, and that the Lightfoot administration is refusing to address these shortages in firm contract language. Teachers are also calling for smaller class sizes, investments in special education, and support for undocumented students through a “sanctuary school” program.

“This is about way more than just pay,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey to the boisterous crowd of teachers and supporters Tuesday night. “It’s about dignity, and the fact that our schools suffer from critical staffing shortages…It’s about the schools that Chicago’s children deserve.”

The rally also featured teachers giving first-hand testimonials of why they are voting to authorize a strike. Jamie Schnall, an educator at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, echoed Sharkey’s claims, saying: “Large class sizes aren’t just in my kindergarten classes, it’s the entire building. They take more time to plan, to incorporate into lessons, and more time to get individualized attention. We need class size limits.”

And Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary teacher Norma Noriega highlighted the need for strong contract language guaranteeing safety for undocumented youth. “Our students are terrified of ICE,” she said. “We’re demanding sanctuary for all of our students. We fight for sanctuary because our students deserve to feel—and be—safe in their schools.”

“Everybody is going on strike”

But CTU members aren’t the only school workers on the verge of striking. Tuesday’s rally was also organized alongside SEIU Local 73, a union representing more than 29,000 workers, over 7,000 of whom who work in education-related positions such as custodians, special education assistants and security guards.

Local 73 members are demanding higher pay, increased staffing and an end to privatization deals that purge their ranks—such as the city’s agreement with contractor Aramark that brought private custodians into public schools, and left them in horrendous conditions. The union’s membership has already voted overwhelmingly to go out on strike, which could begin as soon as next month—potentially coinciding with that of the CTU.

Already in Chicago, thousands of nurses have gone out on strike in the past week at the University of Chicago Medical Center. On Monday, teachers at Passages charter school, who are members of the CTU, voted unanimously to authorize a walkout. And Chicago Park District employees announced at Tuesday’s rally that more than 94% of their members have voted to strike.

These actions come on the heels of recent strikes by Chicago hotel workers and orchestra musicians, as well as the first charter schools strikes in the country. Taken together, these displays of collective and concerted worker action represent a new approach for the city’s labor movement, moving into offense after years of being on its heels.

Jeanette Taylor, newly-elected alderwoman of the 20th Ward, summed up the newfound state of affairs at Tuesday’s rally, saying: “Everybody is going on strike in this city, and this is the right thing to do. We’re at a time in our lives when we can’t be silent anymore…we’ve got to stand and fight for each other.”

During his speech, Sen. Sanders urged the Chicago school board to “Sign a contract that deals with the desperate shortage of school nurses, of social workers, of librarians and of other critical staff that keep our schools going.”

“When we talk about valuing work, it’s not the hedge fund managers on Wall Street that we should value,” he continued. “It’s the teachers of this country, it’s the staffing, it’s the school nurses and the librarians.”

Supporting unions from the campaign trail

This isn’t the first time Sanders has used his 2020 campaign to lend support to Chicago workers in the midst of a labor dispute. In June, the campaign used its contact lists to call on supporters to join graduate student workers at the University of Chicago on their picket line. The campaign had previously done similar outreach to support striking workers at McDonald’s, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Mercy Health-St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. This mobilization, conducted through texts and emails, stands as an apparent first in modern presidential politics.

Directly pressuring employers to raise wages has been another strategy employed by Sanders’ campaign. The senator’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” introduced last fall, aimed to rein in corporate welfare and force large companies like Amazon to pay their workers a living wage. Weeks after the legislation was released, Bezos—the richest man in the world and a longtime target of Sanders’—raised his employees’ starting wages across the board to $15 an hour.

In each of these instances, Sanders did not single-handedly advocate for workers’ rights—he followed the lead of grassroots movements that were already putting forward bold demands. Whether it was grad student union members or the Fight for $15 movement, Sanders merely lent his support and voice to the labor struggles already underway. And the victories, such as Amazon’s wage raise, were made possible by organizers and rank-and-file activists—not simply a presidential candidate. Still, this type of overt worker solidarity has become a trademark of Sanders’ 2020 run.

The appearance in Chicago came the same day Sanders rolled out his wealth tax proposal, which would hit the top 0.1% of households and raise up to $4.35 trillion over the next ten years. Sanders has said that this money could be directed toward early childhood education, his ambitious housing plan and funding a Medicare for All system. Under the proposal, Jeff Bezos would be forced to pay $9 billion a year in taxes. As Sanders told the New York Times of his plan to target the super-rich, “I don’t think billionaires should exist.”

Sanders isn’t the only major presidential candidate to voice support for the Chicago teachers. On Sunday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “I stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chicago teachers making their voices heard to demand living wages, smaller class sizes, and all the things teachers need to do their jobs well.” The following day, former Vice President Joe Biden followed suit, tweeting, “I’m proud to support Chicago’s educators as they fight for fair wages, full staffing, and smaller class sizes.”

Seven years ago, Chicago teachers were able to emerge victorious in their strike even without help from the mainstream political class—locally or nationally. But today, following a wave of teacher strikes across the country which has shifted the political terrain decidedly in the direction of rebelling workers, and with all of the top Democratic candidates and an array of left-wing city council members in its corner, the CTU is poised to carry forward what the union initiated in 2012.

As Sanders said Tuesday night of the newfound labor insurgency, “What we are seeing is teachers standing up and fighting for justice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. [email protected] @MilesKLassin


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Chicago Teachers Are on the Verge of Striking—This Is Why

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Chicago teachers will likely take to the streets early Tuesday in an escalation of their campaign to defend their jobs and improve the education of the students and the communities they serve. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has said it will strike if no deal is reached by midnight.

Four years ago, the CTU won a new contract with a dramatic 7-day strike that captured national attention. Although the CTU was unable in the following years to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel from closing more than 50 schools, last April the union continued its contract fight with a mayoral-appointed Board of Education by calling for a 1-day strike over the failure of talks to renew their contract.

With the CTU and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) still at loggerheads over a new agreement, the teachers are preparing to establish picket lines once again at schools throughout the nation’s third-largest school system, taking on the Board of Education, Emanuel, the obsessively anti-union Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the local business class.

The fight is, in various ways, about money. The Board of Education, under Emanuel’s control, says it must cut costs since it is running a deficit. One of its proposed solutions would eliminate a longstanding agreement to pay for part of the cost of teachers’ pensions, effectively cutting teachers’ pay.

Rauner advocates a harsh and ideological strategy designed to humiliate the teachers and break their union. He has said bankruptcy might be the best option for CPS—a move that would allow a court to void union contracts.

But the strike is about more than money, too. The CTU sees negotiations as a chance to focus on the quality of education for Chicago students. The union wants to reduce class sizes, guarantee that all schools have libraries and librarians, give teachers professional support and training to teach more creatively, and provide social services and counselors who can help students resolve problems that may be interfering with their learning or leading them to drop out.

“In my 13 years of teaching, schools and students have never faced this type of assault,” said Lillian Kass, a special education teacher in CPS and a CTU delegate.

“We are going on strike to protect our students from further cuts. We need enforceable class sizes and adequate services so all students can succeed. Teachers and students have already suffered too many cuts. More cuts are not acceptable and not sustainable,” she said.

Historical backdrop

The contract dispute is linked to profound and pernicious questions regarding class and racial divisions in the city and state. The backdrop to the current conflict is the decades-long failure of the state government to follow the state’s constitutional mandate to carry the primary responsibility for financing public education.

As a result, schools are very unevenly and inequitably funded by local property taxes. The tax burden is greatest on working-class households, while businesses successfully resist paying their fair share. Chicago taxpayers suffer an additional burden: While state taxes—including taxes paid by Chicago residents—help fund teacher pensions for the rest of the state, Chicago residents alone pay for all pension-related costs for their schools.

Low-income communities, especially those that are predominately black, have suffered most from shortcomings in funding, school closings and many other CPS policies. Reinforcing the results of other investigations, a recent report by WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station, revealed that new school construction in areas of the city where the population is growing is carefully planned to maintain high levels of racial segregation, even though it would be easy to use the construction to create a more integrated school enrollment.

Community allies

Union leaders see community groups as crucial allies in the fight now unfolding. Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC), with a dozen or more members, played an important role in the 2012 strike, says Steven Ashby, a labor educator at the University of Illinois. Ashby, who is the leader of a renewed CTSC, says the new coalition already includes more than 50 groups.

The CTU, CTSC and many other progressive groups are pushing for the city to redirect to the schools as much as possible from Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a funding tool. The money is largely a “slush fund” spent at the mayor’s discretion for business-related projects, and reformers argue that it could provide significant funding for schools.

The issues posed by the teachers’ strike involve a tangle of inherited pathologies of racism, business dominance, and corrupt local politics—together forming a Gordian knot that blocks progressive reform. The strike may not cut the knot, but it could help direct the next blows for reformers tackling the many challenges beyond the current, critically important task of educating the city’s children.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]


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