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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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The coming Chicago teachers strike could be felt across the country

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This week, 35,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago are set to walk off the job in a dramatic citywide strike.

The strike—which is expected to begin on Thursday—comes on the heels of other mass walkouts by teachers in states from West Virginia to Arizona and California. And rather than simply bargaining around issues of pay and benefits, Chicago teachers are demanding investments to uplift public education in the face of austerity and privatization.

Today, Rebecca Burns reported for In These Times on the strategy being employed by the Chicago Teachers Union of “bargaining for the common good” and the promise it holds for unions across the country that are seeking to win gains for not just their members, but the entire working class.

Throughout the lead up to the strike—and during it, should it take place—In These Times will be providing an inside, on-the-ground perspective with analysis and reporting from the viewpoint of rank-and-file teachers, organizers and working-class Chicagoans.

For background on the issues at play in the strike and its national implications, check out our earlier reporting on why presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is standing with Chicago teachers, as well as Kari Lydersen on the tensions between teachers and the newly elected Chicago mayor who ran on a progressive agenda.

Check back in to InTheseTimes.com throughout the week for further coverage of this developing labor action, and what it means for organizers and union members across the country who are fighting for the rights of workers everywhere.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 14, 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. miles@inthesetimes.com @MilesKLassin


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GM strike continues and Chicago teachers gear up for a strike, this week in the war on workers

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Nearly 50,000 striking auto workers remain on the picket lines after close to two weeks, and the Detroit Free Press reports that a tentative deal is likely at least a week away. Meanwhile, teachers in Chicago are gearing up for a strike.

The striking UAW workers are fighting to regain ground after they made concessions when General Motors faced bankruptcy in 2009. They want livable raises and affordable health care, sure, but they also want to reduce the use of temporary workers who get a much worse deal, chip away at the two-tier system in which newer hires make less money, and re-open plants that the company has “unallocated,” a weasel word for closed. And make no mistake that this is about what the mass of workers want: “The tentative agreement they negotiate will have to be good enough to sell itself,” Wayne State University’s Marick Masters told the Free Press. “The (UAW) leadership will not be able to sell an agreement that the membership will ratify, because they will not have confidence in the leaders.”

In Chicago, 94% of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted in favor of a strike, which could start as early as October 7 and draw the support of 7,000 school workers who are members of SEIU. Teachers are looking far outside the classroom to improve the schools for their students and communities. They want a raise, and deserve one, but they also want a nurse at every school and at least one social worker for every 50 students in high-trauma areas; more “community schools” that feature wrap-around services such as health care and GED programs; protection against ICE for immigrant students and families; and taxes on the wealthy to provide funding for affordable housing. “The money is there,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told Labor Notes. “Our city leadership makes choices. They choose to give $1.3 billion to build development in what they call a ‘blighted area’ in one of the richest parts of Chicago.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on September 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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California bill would increase local control over charter schools, this week in the war on workers

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The financial drain and lack of local control of charter schools were a major issue in this year’s teachers strikes in California, and now the state legislature has passed a bill that might help. AB 1505 gives local school boards the ability to block new charter schools under some circumstances.

The bill, which still has to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would allow school boards to block the opening of new charter schools or expansion of an existing charter where it would duplicate already-existing programs. It would also allow school boards to consider the fiscal impact of opening a new charter school. This is a change: Previously, if a local school board said no, the state could come in and overrule it, forcing a new charter school in. Exactly that happened in San Francisco, even over decisions that were unanimous at the local level.

“In effect, we have certain charters in our district that we didn’t agree on and they did not meet our standard and yet we have to house them in our buildings,” San Francisco School Board Commissioner Alison Collins told SF Weekly. “Charters are circumventing local control. We have very little power over fixing things and holding them accountable.”

AB 1505 follows another important bill, Senate Bill 126, passed last spring, which requires charter schools to follow the same open meetings, open records, and conflict of interest laws as public schools—a no-brainer, you would think, but something charter schools have fought tooth and nail in multiple locations.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on September 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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The Teacher Strikes Could Set Off a Private Sector Strike Wave—If We Dare

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In the spring of 2018, teachers across West Virginia improbably shut down schools statewide, creating a political crisis that forced Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the GOP-led legislature to back down. Drawing inspiration from the West Virginia strikers, teachers in the red states of Arizona and Oklahoma soon followed suit by carrying out statewide strikes of their own.

In his new book Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, writer and former teacher Eric Blanc details the history of these teachers strikes while providing incisive analysis, informed by his visits to the sites of these labor struggles and his access to key players which provided inside accounts of strategic and tactical debates.

By providing this on-the-ground perspective, Red State Revolt captures the exhilaration and twists and turns of these strikes. Blanc recounts how an initial Facebook group among teacher activists exploded in West Virginia, helping lead to the first tentative calls for a walkout and, in a matter of months, to the massive statewide strike of teachers and support staff. Red State Revolt shows how little steps can lead to big results.

As simply a strike history, Red State Revoltwould stand as a thoughtful contribution for labor activists who could find inspiration and learn from the successes and missteps of striking teachers in these three states. Fortunately for those of us in the labor movement, Blanc drives deeper.

The core of Red State Revolt is built around of the concept of “the militant minority,” explored in depth in the longest chapter of the book. As Blanc explains: “An indispensable ingredient in the victories of West Virginia and Arizona was the existence of a ‘militant minority’ of workplace activists—that is, individuals with a class struggle orientation, significant organizing experience, and a willingness to act independently of (and, if necessary, against) the top union officialdom.”

These activists helped push their struggles forward and at key moments helped the rank-and-file contend with more conservative union officials. And, as Blanc points out, a number of these activists constituting the militant minority were socialists, though not all. As Blanc explains: “Though all genuine socialists support class struggle unionism, not all class struggle unionists support socialism.” Included in the latter category were the militant teacher leaders of the Southern former mining strongholds of Mingo County and adjacent counties in West Virginia who led a one-day strike in early February 2018 which helped set the stage for the statewide walkout later that month.

Blanc notes that many of the activists at the core of the West Virginia strike were democratic socialists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which helped motivate them to demand far-reaching changes at their workplaces. As rank-and-file West Virginia strike leader Emily Comer told Blanc, “The role of the Bernie campaign of 2016 on organizing in West Virginia really cannot be overstated. … And it got people, especially young people, plugged in who before had been feeling hopeless and who would not have made their way into organizing before.”

Like any good strike history, Red State Revolt delves into the complicated relationship between union officials, the union militants pushing the strike from below, and the rank and file workers.   As Blanc explains, because West Virginia activists had built a strong statewide network leading up to and over the course of the strike, they were able to help shape the final contract agreement, continuing the walkout for another week after the initial outline of the settlement was announced until it was finalized.

By covering three strikes in three separate states, in Red State Revolt Blanc is able to compare and contrast the various strategies and outcomes. While the strikes in both West Virginia and Arizona ended on high notes, for example, the Oklahoma walkout resulted in more of a mixed outcome, along with a certain degree of demoralization.

As Blanc notes, the conditions did not initially suggest such a result. “By virtually all possible metrics, the challenges to successful strike action were greatest in Arizona,” Blanc writes. “Its right wing was considerably stronger, and its labor movement significantly weaker, than in Oklahoma—not to mention most other US states.”

Yet the crucial difference, Blanc argues, is that Arizona boasted a militant minority of activists who were able to interact with Arizona’s relatively weak teachers’ union to prod them into action and ultimately helped secure broad victories. Oklahoma, meanwhile, did not possess such a strong array of militant labor activists in the education field, which served as a liability during that state’s strike.

Teacher activists across the country will likely find Red State Revolt invaluable as the uprising shows no sign of ending. Teachers in Colorado, Washington, California and elsewhere have already since rebelled against decades of Democratic neoliberal attacks on public education. Even organizers living in such blue states will find Red State Revolt chock-full of concrete lessons.

The reality is, however, that while these public-sector strikes should give us hope, the crisis of American trade unionism lies firmly in the private sector. For many labor pundits, the lessons of the teachers’ strikes boil down to advocating bargaining for the common good or other social unionist themes. While a broad-based approach to union bargaining that seeks public support is necessary, there’s no indication that corporations will be shamed into supporting worker-friendly policies. With union density hovering at six percent in the private sector, it’s time for dramatically new approaches.

Reviving the labor movement in the private sector will require a strategy capable of breaking through legal restrictions on the right to strike. As Blanc notes, “When it comes to political strategy, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. West Virginia and the other recent teacher revolts have confirmed the continued relevance of an old political insight: strikes are workers’ most powerful weapon.”

One question raised by the strikes in Republican-dominated states is ‘Why did the anti-union policymakers not respond with repression?’ After all, Arizona is a cesspool of reactionary anti-labor politicians, with essentially the entire power structure lined up against unions. Striking was deemed illegal in all of three states. Yet, while politicians made pronouncements indicating the strikes were illegal, they never pulled the trigger on punishing strikers.

For trade unionists, this outcome confirms the reality of what we saw in the 1960s teacher rebellion. In the 1960s, millions of public-sector workers went on strike despite the fact that striking was illegal in every state in the country. Rarely did these workers face recriminations, as politicians feared they could expand the strikes by responding with repression. The red state teacher revolts demonstrate the continued validity of the maxim that ‘there is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.’

The four main takeaways from the Red State Revolt are the necessity of reviving the strike; the need for a broad-based approach; the importance of a conscious militant minority; and the ability of militant social movements to successfully violate labor law. This also serves as a prescription for the revival of the labor movement overall—one quite different from what most labor pundits have been dishing out for the past two decades.

Celebrating victories is a good thing and Red State Revolt does a great job of reliving the excitement of those strikes. Even better, however, is learning from our successes so they can be recreated over and over. That is how bigger and better movements are built.

 

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

About the Author: Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at joe.burns2@gmail.com.

 

 


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Colorado Republican bill would jail teachers for walking out

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Colorado teachers are getting ready to join the wave of teacher walkouts to fight for pay raises and increased education funding—and two Republican lawmakers want to jail the teachers for their activism.

The bill, SB18-264, would prohibit public school teacher strikes by authorizing school districts to seek an injunction from district court. A failure to comply with the injunction would “constitute contempt of court” and teachers could face not only fines but up to six months in county jail, the bill language reads.

The bill also directs school districts to fire teachers on the spot without a proper hearing if they’re found in contempt of court and also bans public school teachers from getting paid “for any day which the public school teacher participates in a strike.”

Presumably state Rep. Paul Lundeen and state Sen. Bob Gardner have not read the polls showing widespread support for teacher walkouts and an even more widespread sentiment that teachers are underpaid. Or maybe they have read the polls and they just don’t care how unpopular their jail-the-teachers bill would be.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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