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How Chicago Teachers Are Resisting the City’s Dangerous School Reopenings

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This week, the first wave of children, teachers and clinicians in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system were required to appear at their schools for the first time in nearly a year. While Covid-19 cases and deaths have only increased (and increased dramatically) across the country since last spring, CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insist on reopening schools. What’s worse, teachers who fear for their safety and the safety of their students and coworkers are being locked out of their employee accounts and having their pay docked if they refuse to return from teaching remotely. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk to Paula Ladin and Mariana Ruiz, two CPS special-ed educators, about the city’s dangerous, reckless and unnecessary reopening plan and the impact it is already having on students, teachers, their families and their communities.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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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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Cleveland Heights Teachers Strike in the Snow, Beating Austerity with Solidarity

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Teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, walked out on strike December 2 for the first time since 1983.

Why now? The state was trying to privatize public education. The local school board was trying to balance the budget on our backs. Add to that a once-in-a-century pandemic.

A well-organized membership was determined not to bend to the pressure from all of the above.

PUSH TO PRIVATIZE

Ohio’s legislature, like others, enacted its own version of privatization with a piece of legislation passed in 2013 called Ed Choice.

This law uses a test-and-punish report card to label a school district as failing. Families living in that district can then take public money as a tuition voucher for a private or religious school of their choice.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district already had a high concentration of families sending their kids to private and religious schools. Now these families are draining the district of much-needed state funding—creating a budget crisis.

It’s all straight from the playbook of the privatization purveyors. First, starve public schools of funds. This erodes the quality of education, prompting an exodus of students out of the district. This brings pressure to lay off union teaching staff and demand pay cuts. The cycle repeats. 

LOCAL AGENTS OF AUSTERITY

Our union was well aware of the descending storm. That’s why, with the help of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, we led the efforts to change the Ed Choice law. We got no help from our elected school board, and so far our lobbying has yielded no results.

Then in the spring, the Board of Education dropped a hammer, demanding contract concessions unlike any our negotiators had ever seen.

Claiming poverty and citing an impending budget crisis, the board proposed to eliminate experience step increases, something we’ve always had. It demanded a 250 percent increase in what we pay for health insurance and a 1 percent reduction in the board’s share of our state pension. These concessions added up to a $3,000 to $5,000 annual cut in pay.

The board claimed the cuts would bring our health insurance “in line” with surrounding districts. But over the past decade, our union had made concession after concession on wages to keep our health care costs from spiraling. It was a point of pride that we had maintained a decent health care package over the years—even at the expense of a wage rate that fell behind the cost of living.

OUT FOR BLOOD

The extreme demands hit members like a bombshell. But most people thought the district would bargain down. Our negotiators got the district to back off the experience steps.

On our health care, though, it seemed to be out for blood. Apparently the board was listening to a small, vocal minority of anti-tax activists who were misleading the public into believing that our health plans were the reason the district was heading into fiscal crisis.

In June our union formed a strike committee and began organizing for a strike, though the possibility still seemed remote.

Throughout the summer we were also distracted by the global pandemic. The district was planning to start the new school year in person, even though the pandemic showed no signs of diminishing. Teachers lobbied, with community support, and convinced the district to go fully online. But still the impasse in bargaining was causing great consternation.

AT AN IMPASSE

In September the district announced its last, best contract offer. Our strike committee organized an in-person contract rejection vote. Members drove through in their cars; union volunteers handed them ballots. It was a way to bring people together while we couldn’t meet in large groups.

The final tally was 97.5 percent to reject the contract—more than enough to authorize the union to call a strike. We hoped this overwhelming rejection would bring the board to its senses. But instead it decided to impose its offer, an unprecedented step in our local’s history.

This blatant show of disrespect incensed our members, especially after the board told the press that the union was the one refusing to bargain in good faith. Soon after, the board agreed to another round of negotiations—but these were postponed when both sides agreed to wait until after the November 3 election, when a new local tax levy would be on the ballot.

In the meantime, the union strike committee continued to organize in earnest, meeting weekly via Zoom.

PREPARING TO STRIKE

The election came and went; the tax levy passed narrowly. Negotiations reopened—and still the board refused to budge from its final offer.

After a series of vociferous Zoom meetings with the membership, our union president filed a 10-day strike notice. A couple days later the school board president, with crocodile tears in her eyes, made the shocking announcement that the district would be suspending our health insurance on day one of the strike.

This move, though we discovered it was not unprecedented, was highly unusual for a public sector strike. Advisors from the Teachers (AFT) told us they had never seen this happen to one of their locals before. As it turned out, it was a terrible public relations move for the board. We got an outpouring of support from community members outraged at the cruelty of eliminating health insurance during a pandemic.

Meanwhile our organizing efforts had become urgent. Each school building had formed its own strike committee, taking direction from the union-wide committee.

The building where I work, the high school, has a relatively large membership of 140. We decided to divide into strike teams by department, each with a captain. Since we were doing distance learning, we couldn’t see members in person daily, so the strike captains set up text and email chains and made phone calls to keep members informed, organize picket-line shift schedules, cement members’ commitment to the strike, and identify possible scabs.

Well before the 10-day notice, the union-wide committee had strike captains distribute electronic pledge cards asking members where they stood on the impending strike—were they supportive, would they picket, and would they promise not to cross the picket line? We also sent out forms to select your preferred picketing shift.

STRIKING IN THE SNOW

Then complications arose. First, COVID-19 cases surged in Ohio, and the governor handed down new mandates closing public facilities and limiting assemblies to 10 people. We lost access to the library branches we had planned to use for restrooms and as warming stations. In the last week before the strike, our committees had to find new restrooms and revamp the picket schedules to shorten shifts.

The day before the strike, Northeast Ohio was blasted by a massive snowstorm. With some schools now off limits due to the snow and loss of parking spaces, we had to change plans again. We called for members to picket at two locations: the high school and the Board of Education. We also had to postpone a planned in-car rally, because the location was still buried in snow.

Nonetheless, as the sun rose on “D-Day,” our members came out in massive numbers in the bitter cold and snow. Teachers started the first day of picketing with snow shovels and blowers to clear the sidewalks.

After three and a half hours, word reached the lines that that a settlement had been reached, one that our executive board could recommend. We went home for Zoom meetings to debate the merits of the offer. Two days later, members voted it up by more than 90 percent.

THEY FOUND THE MONEY

The contract is decent. Although it has us paying more for our premiums and opens the door to co-pays, these concessions are much less than the ones in the board’s egregious “final” offer. They are concessions we can live with, and they are partly offset by a modest raise and additional days off. 

We got a two-year contract instead of one year, so we don’t have to fight this battle again in a few months. And in a huge win, we safeguarded tenure for five more years—staving off the arbitrary and punitive evaluation system the district was pushing.

Somehow, at the end, the school board had found the money to offer a dignified contract.

It showed that a well-organized group of workers can reject austerity. One member put it well when she said the so-called final offer was nothing less than a “race to the bottom and we weren’t having it.” Our unity proved unshakeable—even when we were confronted with having our health care cut off, a move designed to scare members into crossing the picket lines.

Walking off the picket lines one fellow strike captain, a music teacher, told me that we need to maintain what we built. We need to develop a union culture where we have one another’s backs and band together to protect ourselves in the workplace—even in between contract negotiations.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tony Bifulco is a history teacher and was the lead strike captain for Cleveland Heights High School.


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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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Major teachers union will back ‘safety strikes’ to block unsafe school reopening

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The American Federation of Teachers will support its members if they decide to strike over the rush to reopen schools without regard for safety, the union announced Tuesday. The union has been pushing for increased federal funding to help schools reopen safely, but with Mitch McConnell’s Senate taking its sweet time and Donald Trump demanding in-person schooling regardless of safety, teachers can’t just sit and wait.

“Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve,” the resolution from the 1.7 million-member union’s executive council reads, “including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.”

The AFT’s guidelines for safe reopening in person include the ability of schools to implement social distancing, ventilation and other upgrades to schools, adequate hand-washing facilities, and mask-wearing. But additionally, the union calls for communities to meet safety standards and not reopen schools until “The average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent,” as well as having in place contact tracing and “a statewide, city- and/or community-level authority empowered to trigger closure in the event of a spike in infection or when public health standards aren’t being met.” 

The current Senate Republican proposal includes just $70 billion of the hundreds of billions of dollars in funding experts say are needed to make schools safe, and Republicans are requiring in-person classes for access to much of that already inadequate funding. So schools that aren’t safe to open because they require additional funding to make them safe would be entirely screwed. As is the Republican way.

“Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus?” AFT President Randi Weingarten asked in a speech to the union’s convention, being held online. “Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?”

”Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76 percent of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten noted. But recent events have changed that—and it’s beyond clear that the proper safeguards will not be in place if Trump has anything to do with it.

Teachers continue to fight it out state by state, trying to find a way to educate kids without risking the lives of teachers and students alike. The Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his reckless push to reopen. After pressure from Massachusetts teachers unions, the state’s schools will open 10 days late to give time to prepare for whatever it is education will look like. “We had 24 hours to plan for crisis learning remotely in the spring, and not a single minute in the last 13 weeks to stop and reflect and evaluate and revise it,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said. The 10-day pause is intended to provide that time—but teachers in the state are still pushing for other key provisions to make the coming year safe. In New York City, the Movement of Rank and File Educators is threatening a sickout if the city doesn’t ensure safety. In California, teachers unions were pushing back against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pressure to reopen in person—until Newsom ordered schools in much of the state to open remotely until things are safer.

Schools are massively important not just to kids but to the economy as a whole. Yet Republicans have put everything else ahead of them, making it essentially impossible to safely open schools in much of the country. This required a giant investment months ago to make school buildings safer, and a giant effort to reduce community transmission of coronavirus so that well-ventilated schools with social distancing and mask-wearing have even a small prayer of avoiding outbreaks. It shouldn’t be on teachers to make federal and state and local lawmakers bend to what the science is already telling them.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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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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Corporate America freaks out over Elizabeth Warren

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Ben White

Democratic-leaning executives on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and across the corporate world are watching Elizabeth Warren’s rise to frontrunner status in the Democratic primary with an increasing sense of existential panic.

And they feel mostly paralyzed to do much about it — other than throwing money at other candidates and praying.

Warren’s grassroots fundraising prowess shows she doesn’t need big corporate money. She’s got $26 million in the bank. And taking her on directly just makes her stronger with her populist base. Any attack on Warren from the tech or Wall Street worlds just turns into an immediate Warren talking point.

When CNBC host Jim Cramer did a piece on money managers freaking out about Warren, the candidate grabbed the clip and tweeted above it: “I’m Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message.”

It’s led to fairly widespread frustration that Warren’s rise seems unstoppable.

“There’s really not a damn thing you can do about Warren. There is nothing,” said one prominent Wall Street hedge fund manager and Democratic bundler who is raising money for a Warren rival. “It’s the same thing Republicans went through with Trump. You look at her and think what she is going to do is going to be horrible for the country. But if you say anything about it you just make her stronger.”

This fund manager, like a half-dozen other executives interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name for fear of being directly attacked by Warren. Some, however, are happy to ring the alarm, no matter how Warren might use their words.

“What is wrong with billionaires? You can become a billionaire by developing products and services that people will pay for,” said Leon Cooperman, a billionaire former Goldman Sachs executive who is now CEO of investment firm Omega Advisors and who predicts a 25 percent market drop should Warren become president. “I believe in a progressive income tax and the rich paying more. But this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on.”

Earlier in the campaign, executives suggested they found Warren at least a more palatable alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an avowed democratic socialist. Warren, a former Republican, has said she’s a capitalist “to my bones.” Even now, some billionaires are urging calm.

“‘Ninety-seven percent of the people I know in my world are really, really fearful of her,” billionaire Michael Novogratz told Bloomberg over the weekend. “It’s a little carried away.”

But more broadly the mood has shifted as Warren now leads Biden in some national and early state polls. And she has intensified her rhetoric toward Wall Street and the tech industry in particular.

At last week’s debate she stressed that she would no longer take any money at all from tech or Wall Street executives, after having success with tech donors earlier in the campaign.

“If we are going to talk about Wall Street and having some serious regulation over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives,” Warren said, an indirect dig at former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have held high-dollar Wall Street fundraisers.

“You can’t go behind closed doors and take the money of these executives and then turn around and expect that these are the people who are actually finally going to enforce the laws. We need campaign finance rules and practices.”

The current strategy among centrist, corporate-friendly Democrats is mostly to hope and pray that Biden — or perhaps Buttigieg or even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — can still take her out and prevent a possible Warren presidency that could upend business models and reshape entire industries.

Most are not ready to jump over to Trump, but some at least ponder the idea.

“I don’t assume all these people would go to Trump. Plenty of them think there is much more at stake than just narrow industry interests or tax rates,” a second hedge fund executive said. “There are a bunch of financial people that at the end of the day, if she’s the candidate, they will still support her. They won’t raise money for her because they can’t. But they will still support her because of what the alternative is.”

Among other things scaring corporate America and rich people, Warren has pledged to institute wealth taxes and break up tech giants and Wall Street banks. She has taken sharpest aim at the private equity industry, introducing the “Stop Wall Street Looting Act of 2019” that would essentially wipe out some of the industry’s most lucrative practices.

Much of this would be hard to enact without large majorities in both houses of Congress. But Warren could do a great deal in the regulatory world to appoint strict overseers and push much more stringent rules while rolling back the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts.

As of now, there is no organized Stop Warren strategy.

The closest thing that has emerged lately is a vague whisper campaign that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could ride into the Democratic primary at the last minute if it appears Biden is really failing. But even Bloomberg’s closest confidants admit there is little chance he could succeed.

“Mike’s calculation, rightly or wrongly, is that the same people who back Biden would back him,” said a person close to the former mayor. “But it’s by no means clear to him or to anyone that it’s even possible.”

Political observers view a late Bloomberg run as even less likely to succeed.

“First of all Bloomberg is older than Biden, even though he doesn’t look it,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. strategist at AGF Investments, the Toronto financial firm. “And the big impediment is he’s out of step with his own party. The activist base would be appalled by someone so pro-Wall Street.”

Biden’s dip in the polls — coupled with his troubling report of just $9 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter — has anti-Warren Wall Street types looking hard at other Democrats, led for the moment by Buttigieg, who has built a strong core of well-heeled fundraisers led by hedge fund manager Orin Kramer.

According to recently released figures, Buttigieg raised around $25,000 from executives at finance firms including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management in the third quarter. And he raised around $150,000 from donors who described their occupation as “investor.”

Overall, Buttigieg is now in much stronger financial shape than Biden with around $23 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter to around $9 million for the former vice president. Klobuchar has just $3.7 million, which leads many big donors to think she doesn’t have a shot to last long after early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire next year.

Buttigieg raising significant cash from Wall Street executives may make him a target of both Warren and Sanders. But a Buttigieg campaign official said it would not have an influence on his policies toward the industry. “People are coming to us because of Pete’s message and they are seeing and hearing real excitement and enthusiasm around him,” the official said. “We have over 600,000 individual donors to this campaign and our grassroots energy is very, very strong. We have events where people give more money and events where people give $10 or $15 and people who give $1 or $2 online.”

Perhaps the biggest hope among centrist Democrats is not that Biden finally catches fire again or that Buttigieg bursts to the top. It’s that Warren’s time as the frontrunner takes a toll. Signs of that emerged in the Democratic debate last week as Klobuchar and others went after Warren for not being clear how she would pay for “Medicare for All” and refusing to say that she would raise taxes. Warren is now pledging to come up with a plan to pay for her plan.

Some executives also say they hope that moderate Democrats in swing Senate and House seats up in 2020 will begin to get scared of running with Warren at the top of the ticket and start to agitate harder for Biden or someone else.

“What it’s going to take is moderate Democrats in swing states and swing districts who are terrified of running with her at the top of the ticket coming out and doing something,” said a senior executive at one of Wall Street’s largest banks. “But nobody wants to piss her off. Nobody wants to be on her bad list.”

This executive said if Warren gets to the general election that Trump — whose campaign had $83 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter — would paint her as a threat to the American economy. “No one has really run opposition research on her yet. She’s skated pretty clean up till now. If you get her in the general, Trump and the RNC will paint her to the left of Mao. You look at the history of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis and Massachusetts liberals and it’s not very good.”

This article was originally published at Politico on October 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ben White is POLITICO Pro’s chief economic correspondent and author of the “Morning Money” column covering the nexus of finance and public policy.

Prior to joining POLITICO in the fall of 2009, Mr. White served as a Wall Street reporter for the New York Times, where he shared a Society of Business Editors and Writers award for breaking news coverage of the financial crisis.

From 2005 to 2007, White was Wall Street correspondent and U.S. Banking Editor at the Financial Times.

White worked at the Washington Post for nine years before joining the FT. He served as national political researcher and research assistant to columnist David S. Broder and later as Wall Street correspondent.

White, a 1994 graduate of Kenyon College, has two sons and lives in New York City.


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Why Are Chicago Teachers Striking Against Mayor Lori Lightfoot? They’ve Been “Lied To” Before.

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kari-lydersen

As a pink sunrise painted the sky on Thursday morning, horns blared seemingly nonstop from semi trucks, commuters’ cars, a concrete mixer and countless other vehicles. They were all supporting members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73, which represents school support staff, on the picket line before dawn outside John A. Walsh Elementary School in Chicago’s heavily immigrant Pilsen neighborhood.

At schools across the city, teachers and staff waved signs, blew whistles, chanted and cheered to a cacophony of supportive honking from morning traffic. Teachers said they’re disappointed that the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet followed through on campaign promises to increase school staffing, shrink class sizes, create an elected school board and otherwise bolster public education. But with the support of the public—and a whopping 94% of membership voting to strike—they are hopeful.

“People in the schools every day can’t bear to see what’s happening,” said Walsh counselor Kristy Brooks. “Kids in Chicago have tough lives, they’re dealing with poverty, immigration fears, violence, and we’re asking them to put all that aside when they come here. That’s a lot to ask. That’s why we need these support systems.”

Brooks, who has been in the school system for 14 years, previously worked at a school on the West Side that was closed during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s shuttering of almost 50 schools. She said students, families and teachers still haven’t recovered from the impacts of those school closings, not to mention the gentrification, violence and other trauma that causes students to need far more access to counselors, nurses and social workers than is currently available. Most schools have a nurse on site only once a week, and CPS’s ratios of students to nurses and social workers are about four and five times higher than recommended by those professions’ national associations, according to the union.

Earlier this summer, Lightfoot announced the hiring of hundreds of nurses and social workers, and said in a statement last week that her administration is committing $400,000 to “developing a pipeline of nurses, counselors and case managers.” But the union wants specific benchmarks written into their contract—a demand the administration has resisted.

On Thursday morning, counselor Mary Jane Nykiel picketed outside Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the Near West Side, a neighborhood with a large African-American population.

“Because of the lack of other clinicians, counselors are spread very thin and asked to do other duties that aren’t counselor duties,” Nykiel said. “We’re pulled in many directions.”

She said that the school, which was considered for closure by Emanuel’s administration, “has a beautiful library but hasn’t had a librarian in 15 years.” Nykiel serves 450 students, and the school has a nurse twice a week and a social worker once a week, she said, which isn’t near enough “especially on the West Side where there’s so much inequity and poverty and trauma.”

Nykiel noted that even after the teachers garnered important contract gains and massive public support during the 2012 strike, the administration still carried out among the largest mass school closings in U.S. history soon after.

To Daniel Washco, a ninth-grade English teacher at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the city’s West Side, those closings underscored that promises from the administration—like Lightfoot’s pledges to hire more nurses and social workers—are not enough. “Now put it in writing,” he said.

Washco was excited and hopeful when Lightfoot was elected, and still feels “her heart is in the right place.” The outcome of the strike will be telling, he said: “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

At Walsh, Brooks serves 302 students, a smaller number than counselors at many schools, though still above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended level of 250 students per counselor. And her relatively light load is in part because of gentrification in the neighborhood. The school has lost about 50% of its student body in the six years Brooks has been there, she said, with immigrant families displaced as the neighborhood becomes more expensive. Across the street from the school, newly built, still-unoccupied condos cover an entire city block.

The impacts of gentrification and lack of affordable housing on students, teachers and especially school paraprofessionals like clerks are among the reasons CTU has demanded the administration agree to endorse rent control and specific affordable housing provisions. Nearly a quarter of paraprofessionals make less than $32,000 a year, according to the union. One picket sign said, “My bar job paid for this sign.”

“It’s incredibly difficult for parents and teachers to be able to live near their schools and be part of their community” because of rising housing prices, said Washco.

In a statement, Lightfoot said CTU wanted to “set the city’s affordable housing policy through their collective bargaining agreement,” which would sideline other stakeholders. She said she “appointed the city’s first housing commissioner in a decade,” while also announcing a plan for low-income housing tax credits.

Esther Valenciano raised her kids in Pilsen and they graduated from Walsh, just around the corner from their home. Valenciano has worked at Walsh as a preschool teaching assistant for 23 years, but when she decided to buy a home, she couldn’t afford to stay in Pilsen. Now her son and daughter also work in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as teaching assistants, and are studying to become teachers.

Valenciano and the teacher she assists are often in charge of more than 40 preschoolers, including some with special needs. “They’re little kids, so we have to be fast,” she said.  “Especially in gym, it becomes a safety issue. It should not be that way.”

Valenciano finds herself, teachers, parents and grandparents all working together “as our own social workers” to try to help kids with problems when no case managers are available. “We do what we can do together,” she said.

Meanwhile, counselors say they’re often doing the jobs of social workers, plus helping in the classroom, lunchroom or recess, along with their primary responsibility of advising students about academics, college and careers.

Outside Nixon Elementary on the city’s largely Hispanic, working-class Northwest Side, librarian and union delegate Leslie Westerberg picketed with her shelter rescue dog, Milo, wearing a homemade union dog jacket. A CPS school Westerberg previously worked at closed its library and dismantled the bookshelves to turn it into a classroom, she said. She doesn’t know what happened to all the books she fundraised to buy.

At Nixon, Westerberg said she’s lucky to have a principal who prioritizes the library, but she notes many schools can’t do that as the system’s student-based budgeting formula means principals have to make tough choices when allocating scarce resources.

“We want students to know how to research and be ready for college, and we want them to excel at reading and have a love of reading, but how can we do that without libraries and librarians?” she asked. She said the union understands that higher staffing levels of librarians, counselors, social workers and nurses may need to be phased in over time, but she still wants the positions mandated in the contract and funded through the central office so that candidates can be hired when they are found.

“It’s unfair to our students that we have to beg for this,” she said. “It’s concerning that [Lightfoot] is offering things but not putting them in writing, so we could potentially be lied to, and CPS has lied to us so many times. They still need to earn our trust.”

Across the street from Westerberg, fifth-grade math teacher Samantha Gill and special education assistant Diana Morales wore unicorn and tiger onesies as they danced Zumba and Gill waved a glittery microphone.

“City officials don’t understand the relationships we have with kids, that we are literally doing all of this for them,” said Morales, an SEIU Local 73 member. “It’s not fair to kids not to have nurses, librarians, counselors. We owe them the best, and this isn’t the best.”

Gill said kindergarteners have told her that it’s hard for them to be successful with more than 40 kids in a class. “The kids understand it,” she said. “Why can’t the politicians understand it?”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on October 17, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

 


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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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What’s at Stake in Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Whether Unions Can Bargain for the Entire Working Class

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“Solving Chicago’s affordable housing crisis? What’s that got to do with a labor contract for educators?”

That’s the question the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board asked last week as the city’s teachers and school support staff inched closer to an October 17 strike date, with little progress made in negotiations for a new contract.

A standoff at the bargaining table over the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) package of housing demands dominated the city’s news cycle last week. The union is asking Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to provide housing assistance for new teachers, hire staff members to help students and families in danger of losing housing, and take other steps to advocate for more affordable housing overall in the city.

In response, recently elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of holding up contract negotiations, and the Sun-Times chided teachers to take a “reality check.”

It’s true that CPS has no legal obligation to bargain with the union over affordable housing policy. But it’s hardly unrelated—an estimated 17,000 students in the city are homeless, as CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates stated on Chicago Tonight.

Housing advocates agree. “The mayor’s view reflects a very narrow understanding of the professional responsibilities of public school educators,” says Marnie Brady, assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College and research committee co-chair of the national Homes For All campaign. “The living conditions of their students are indeed the working conditions of their classrooms.”

By raising an issue that affects not only teachers, but the communities they live and work in, CTU is deploying a strategy known as “bargaining for the common good.” That approach was key to the union’s victory in its landmark 2012 walkout, but a potential strike of 35,000 school and parks workers this week is shaping up to be an even more dramatic test.

Bargaining for the common good

During their eight-day strike in 2012, Chicago teachers rallied under the slogan “fighting for the schools our students deserve.” By highlighting issues such as class sizes, standardized testing, predatory Wall Street deals and a pattern of racist disinvestment in the city, teachers helped secure wide support from the city’s parents while wringing concessions from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The CTU also helped galvanize a new wave of teacher militancy that’s seen unions in red states use unauthorized strikes to address abysmal state funding for education and protest tax breaks for the rich and the fossil-fuel industry.

Teachers in cities like Los Angeles, meanwhile, have won contracts that include more nurses and additional resources for students, as well as special provisions requiring the district to provide immigration support for students and curtail school policies that the union said amounted to racial profiling.

The increasing embrace of “common good” bargaining by teachers has, in turn, helped boost public support of their unions nationwide—from 30 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2019, according to a poll from Education Next.

Frequently vilified as greedy in the media, teachers unions often have their hands tied by laws restricting the issues they can bargain and strike over. Per a 1995 Illinois law, for example, the only “mandatory” bargaining issues for Chicago teachers are pay, benefits and the length of the school day. But unions can still mobilize public pressure to try to force employers to negotiate over additional demands.

In 2013, citing inspiration from Chicago, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) worked with community allies to jointly draw up a list of 29 demands to bring into its contract negotiations, including the expansion of preschool, reforms to school discipline procedures and the reduction of standardized testing. While the school district initially refused to negotiate over 18 of these areas, a united front by teachers and community members eventually pressured it to include language on almost every area in the SPFT’s new contract.

“I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT,” explained the union’s then-president Mary Cathryn Ricker in a 2015 article for Dissent. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

These victories helped give birth to a formal network called “Bargaining for the Common Good,” which now includes some 50 unions and community organizations. The goal is to expand labor’s scope of bargaining beyond wages and benefits to advance a broad, working-class agenda and go on the attack against shared enemies, including Wall Street and corporate America.

Three strikes at once

Chicago remains at the cutting edge of this effort. This fall, it may not be just CTU walking out—school support staff and Chicago Parks District workers represented by SEIU 73 have also set strike dates of October 17. While negotiating separately, the unions are pushing a common narrative: The new mayor must get the city’s priorities in check by committing more resources to vital public services and the workers who make them run.

Other key issues include adequate staffing of nurses, counselors and librarians—which many of the city’s schools lack entirely—rolling back the privatization of school services, creating enforceable sanctuary protections for undocumented students, and lifting poverty wages for school support staff and part-time parks workers.

The unions have also taken on the question of where the money to accomplish all this could come from. The Chicago Teachers Union has been leading the fight against massive tax giveaways to developers through the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. Earlier this year, SEIU 73 members waded into what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions when they protested outside Chicago Police Department headquarters to demand the city stop diverting resources from schools and parks to the police budget.

Venus Valino, a member of SEIU 73’s bargaining team, notes that the parks district has been subsidizing police patrols to the tune of about $4 million a year. But she rarely sees police where she works, in Wolfe Park on the city’s far Southeast Side, while dealing with periodic drive-by shootings, and a teen who was stabbed in the neck.

“That money is going to tourist areas, and we’re mostly left to fend for ourselves,” Valino says. She would prefer that resources be put back into dedicated park security guards who are familiar with the area, as well as public programming that would benefit the neighborhood. Two-thirds of park staff are part-time and receive zero paid-time-off, she adds.

As a 20-year parks worker, Valino sees her role as similar to that of a teacher. During the 2012 teachers strike, she remembers, she helped take care of 300 school children when the city made use of parks for its contingency plan. The fact that parks workers could be out on strike at the same time as teachers this year will put a squeeze on both city agencies and parents, but Valino says that since the union announced a potential strike, she’s been receiving calls of support from parents she’s worked with over the years.

“We’re always there for the public, and we see the needs of the public,” she says. “When it was freezing this winter, we’re the ones who opened up warming centers. I’m really touched that the public is thinking about how they can support us.”

Why affordable housing?

The close relationship between public unions and the communities they serve can make them especially well-suited to bring the concerns of those communities to the bargaining table. The CTU’s demand for affordable housing is perhaps the boldest example of this, and it’s one that labor commentators have been urging unions to take up in recent years.

Lightfoot and media commentators, conversely, have attempted to use this demand to paint the CTU as out-of-touch and drive a wedge in public support. “If the CTU strikes over this one, we predict it will not go down well with most of the rest of the city,” wrote the Sun-Times editorial board.

Eva Jaramillo, a mother of three who is currently in court fighting her family’s eviction, tells In These Times that she is grateful to see the teachers union taking up the issue. Jaramillo’s 10-year-old daughter attends North River Elementary, just blocks from the Albany Park apartment where the family has lived for 16 years. Earlier this year, Jaramillo was served with an eviction notice after complaining about malfunctioning heat during the winter. Two other families in the building who reportedly complained about conditions are also facing eviction, which would represent a violation of Chicago’s landlord-tenant laws. The group has formed a tenants union and protested outside the landlord’s home, but one of Jaramillo’s biggest concerns is that her daughter will have to transfer schools.

“She loves everything about her school,” Jaramillo said in Spanish. “She wakes up excited to go, and when she is sick, she cries because she doesn’t want to miss a day. This situation has affected her the most, because she doesn’t want to leave the school.”

Chicago students living in temporary housing situations have the right to remain enrolled in their current school, and can stay until the academic year if they find new housing. But Jaramillo is skeptical that, if her family is evicted, they will ultimately be able to find affordable housing anywhere nearby.

The school district doesn’t keep statistics on how housing displacement ultimately contributes to school enrollment, but anecdotal evidence suggests that in many neighborhoods, they’re closely linked.

In Albany Park, a gentrifying neighborhood in the city’s northwest side, the Autonomous Tenants Union documented how a 2017 mass-eviction in a single building being rehabbed by its new owner impacted some 30 children who attended Hibbard Elementary.

Data from a study released in May shows that the eviction rate is twice the citywide average in some Black neighborhoods, including ones where schools were shuttered in 2013 due to purported under-enrollment. Thanks to the model known as student-based budgeting, when students and their families have been forced out of schools, funding follows them. This cycle of housing displacement and school disinvestment has played a prominent role in driving thousands of Black residents from Chicago each year.

For these reasons, it’s hard for Jaramillo to understand how the city could consider housing and schools as unrelated. “The school and home have a deep relationship,” she says. “The school is the second home, but children also need their first home to be a stable one.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 14, 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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