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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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Chicago teachers strike for smaller classes, affordable housing, and racial justice

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Chicago public school teachers, along with school staff represented by SEIU, are on strike as of Thursday morning. The teachers, who a poll shows have public support, are striking not just or even mostly for better pay—though, as a video you can watch below shows, many are struggling to get by—but for nurses and counselors and librarians in every school, for smaller class sizes and more bilingual teachers and more special education teachers and for “real sanctuary schools.” The city has tried to derail the strike by offering—and making a big public deal about—substantial raises, but the teachers are making clear that it’s bigger than that.

The teachers are also fighting for affordable housing for students, at least 16,450 of whom are homeless, with homelessness disproportionately affecting black students, and for lower-paid school staff who are required to live within city limits but struggle to afford city housing costs.

The Chicago Teachers Union is pointing directly at racism as a factor in the state of Chicago schools. ”Here’s what I have learned from the systems in place. They’re governed by white supremacy,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told HuffPost. “We have a school district that is 90% children of color, we have immigrant children in our system?why on earth would it be difficult to enshrine class size protections and make sure there’s a nurse in every school?”

There are around 25,000 teachers on strike, along with 7,500 support staff, affecting the nearly 300,000 in the city’s schools. A former student who came out to support the teachers told CNN that “I see that many schools do not have complete sets of books for each kid. Some schools do not have the help for bilingual students, someone to help them in their native language. Some schools do not have a special education teacher, the kids are falling behind. Some buildings are falling apart, making it unsafe for kids.”

Chicago teachers last went on strike in 2012, but Jane McAlevey traces out how the CTU’s activism helped set the conditions for the more recent wave of teacher strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles. Now Chicago teachers are again the ones on strike, but in a seriously different environment around the fight for public education than they saw (and began to reshape) in 2012.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has been strongly supportive of the teachers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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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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Detroit Teachers Are Determined To Stop This Legislation. Here’s Why.

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casey quinlanDetroit teachers are organizing to prevent a bill from passing the state legislature that they say would underfund schools and limit teachers’ rights.

There are two competing bills in the legislature aimed at resolving Detroit Public Schools’ current financial mess. The school system was at risk of going bankrupt because school officials said the district was “running out of money” in April, but the state provided $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep the district running. Now, as the end of the school year approaches, there are questions about long-term solutions.

Teachers were told that unless the legislature agrees on a restructuring plan to deal with the school district’s enormous debt, they won’t be paid after June, and summer school may not run. In response, hundreds of teachers called in sick at once, closing more than 90 schools. On Tuesday of last week, the teachers union, Detroit Federation of Teachers, said they would goback to work after assurance from Judge Steven Rhodes, the district’s emergency manager, that they would be paid.

Last week, the state house passed a a package of bills early in the morning — 4:30 a.m., to be exact — to split the district in half and allocate $500 million to pay off its operating deficit. But teachers are concerned about aspects of the House legislation. The legislation doesn’t recognize bargaining units, would impose penalties for going on strike or staging walkouts, would give the district power to hire noncertified teachers, and would tie teacher pay to test scores. The House also did not propose returning local control to the district, meaning there would be an appointed school board. The Detroit Financial Review Commission would choose the superintendent of the district.

The state senate’s proposal, on the other hand, would provide $715 million in funding and would introduce a commission to regulate public schools, which would oversee where traditional public schools and charter schools are located. State senators are pushing for $200 million loan instead of $33 million for transition costs, which is the same amount suggested by Gov. Rick Snyder (R). Mayor Mike Duggan (D) also supports the commission and says the $500 million isn’t enough.

Some Democratic lawmakers argue that allocating as little as $33 million means the legislature would be passing legislation to provide more money in a few months anyway.

“I don’t think we want to be in a situation where we pass a sum of money and then two or three months later we’re right back in front of the Legislature asking for more,” Sen. David Knezek (D)told the Associated Press.

To raise awareness and pressure lawmakers to pass the Senate bill instead of the one advancing in the House, teachers are going door-to-door all over the state in the hope that more widespread opposition to the legislation will help to stop it in its tracks. Detroit teachers and the American Federation of Teachers are also meeting with state lawmakers who may be on the fence about how to approach the school district’s finances, according to WXYZ, a local television station in Detroit.


Detroit teachers and students are also running lemonade stands to raise $500 for a federal audit of Detroit Public Schools because DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes said the state and district don’t have the money for it.
Questions have been raised around DPS’ financial management recently, especially after 12 current and former Detroit principals, a Detroit Public Schools vendor of school supplies, and an assistant superintendent were brought up on federal corruption charges for a school supplies scheme involving kickbacks and bribes.

The legislation opposed by teachers unions could come to the Senate floor as soon as Thursday.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.

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Los Angeles Teachers Demand a Change, Starting with Union Leadership

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Yana KunichoffFor seven years, the 31,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles, the largest local on the West Coast, have gone without a salary increase. Their contract has beenexpired for nearly three of those. And the teachers, counselors and school nurses that make up the UTLA can still be sent to so-called “teacher jail”—housed in district offices until they’re either fired or restored to their position, a process that can take months—when they’re accused of misconduct .

All of this, activists say, has left United Teachers Los Angeles disengaged and disillusioned. This was evidenced by the low turnout for the union election in late April, in which only 7,235 members—fewer than 25 percent of the UTLA—participated.

The results of that election, however, are perhaps an even greater indication that the UTLA is ready for a change. On April 29, social studies teacher and longtime union activist Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected as president of UTLA following a run-off with incumbent Warren Fletcher.

Caputo-Pearl is a member of Union Power, a reform coalition that, a month before Caputo-Pearl’s victory, took over leadership of UTLA. Union activists see the election of the Union Power coalition as a step forward in the fight against business-led, top-down education reform and resource cuts that have beset Los Angeles in recent years.

Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy, for instance, has aggressively pushed for teacher evaluations to include test scores and supported an ongoing lawsuit aimed at cutting seniority and tenure rules. Meanwhile, pay in L.A. has stagnated compared to other large districts, class sizes have grown and school support services are thin on the ground. In 2010, the Los Angeles school district was scarred by the suicide of an elementary school teacher, ostensibly after his scores were publicized on a teacher-rating database by the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, a court ruled in favor of teachers on the issue, finding that the district did not need to publicize the names of teachers with their performance ratings.

Caputo-Pearl, a longtime activist, has said he opposes pegging teacher evaluation to student test scores, expanding charter schools and other school-reform measures popular among city officials. A 20-year veteran of some of the highest-poverty schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Caputo-Pearl started his teaching career with the first round of Teach for America recruits. He is the union chapter chair for Frida Kahlo High School and serves on the Board of Directors for the union’s House of Representatives. He survived several targeted attempts to remove him from both posts after he fought the district’s plan to break his high school into three smaller schools as part of the nationwide “reconstitution” strategy pioneered by Arne Duncan.

Throughout their campaign, Union Power also placed an emphasis on Caputo-Pearl’s community-organizing chops, which they argued would be useful for the broader coalition the reform coalition hoped to build. In a press release promoted before the election, Union Power officials wrote:

“Alex has experience building organizations from the ground up.  He is co-founder of Coalition for Educational Justice, a citywide organization that has been involved in local, state, and national campaigns.  He has been key in building the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition and the Bus Riders Union, which has also led local, state, and national campaigns around civil rights and public services.  He has been a key leader in Progressive Educators for Action, which has helped build a national network of educator organizers, which has allowed Alex to develop deep relationships with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which is in the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and led their successful strike.  Alex has also played a role in building the national ‘Resisting Teach for America’ network.”

In addition to Caputo-Pearl’s presidency, the Union Power slate won 24 out of the 25 seats it ran for, including races against three incumbents from Fletcher’s slate. “In every area, in every position it was a big margin between the Union Power candidates and our opponents,” teacher Rebecca Solomon, who won an executive board spot, tells Labor Notes. “It’s not against one person: it’s everywhere.”

Caputo-Pearl will replace Warren Fletcher, who early on in the race said he would stop campaigning in favor of Caputo-Pearl. The race went into a run-off after the first round of voting narrowed the candidates down from the ten initially campaigning for the post.

Fletcher himself was a reform candidate when he swept into office in 2011 on bread-and-butter issues, winning a runoff against the then-vice president of the union widely seen as a shoe-in for the post. His tenure included an April 2013 referendum against Superintendent Deasy, with a resulting 91 percent of members who voted saying they disapproved of Deasy’s education measures. During his time as president, however, he came under criticism for using piecemeal negotiations on single issues, and not sufficiently mobilizing a dissatisfied union of teachers or a district of angry parents.

Fletcher also leaves behind an agreement made with the district about a new teacher evaluation system, which draws on data from a mix of state standardized tests, classroom observation, and school-level scores. The arrangement is already being contested, though: A state labor board said the district has pushed the evaluation beyond the agreed-upon frameworks signed by the teachers union.

If elected, Union Power said it would invest in broad-ranging plans to reform the union, including a commitment to “initiating a comprehensive public relations campaign to support our demands, a plan to take back our expert role in our profession, a strategic research arm that exposes LAUSD conflicts of interest, and an organizing strategy that supports chapter organizing, parent/community/labor outreach, capacity-building actions, and strike preparation.” It may also broaden from a coalition that came together for the election to a full caucus, cementing a larger group of educators within the UTLA.

At the same time, Union Power’s leaders hope to help shift the conversation around education reform on the national stage, too. “We are at a key moment where [progressive leadership] now has several key cities around the country,” Caputo-Pearl tells In These Times. “The more that we can lead in those cities and encourage others to run for leadership in their teachers union, the more that we can support fighting back against the privatization agenda and fight for real educational justice.”

As that movement grows, says Caputo-Pearl, the Los Angeles teachers union aims to build where the real power is—locally. “Local leadership is where the most important base of organizing happens. When push comes to shove the organizing of education in connection with parents and communities building to the credible threat of a strike can only happen at the local level.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in theChicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others

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Dark Days for Philly Schools As Cuts Threaten to Decimate District

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P5034697Despite educators’ best efforts, urban school systems are bleak places to work at and learn in these days, no matter the city or one’s position in the school. But Philadelphia offers a particularly grim view of the dismantling of public education in the austerity era. Few American city school systems have faced measures as devastating as Philadelphia’s—at the very same time the state government has passed massive corporate tax breaks and increased funding for incarceration.

Citing a budget deficit of $304 million in the coming fiscal year, the city’s School Reform Commission voted in March to close 23 public schools, about 10 percent of the city’s total schools. And this week, the district announced a staggering 3,783 layoffs—676 teachers, 769 assistants and 1,202 school safety staff—if additional funds cannot be generated from the city, the state and concessions from public sector workers.

The closures were not Philadelphia’s first, nor were the layoffs—nine schools were closed andmore than 3,000 jobs were eliminated in 2011. In that year, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett slashed more than $1 billion to public education in the state’s budget (along with other brutal cuts to the social safety net throughout Pennsylvania).

Those measures were considered devastating at the time. The currently proposed closures and cuts go even deeper.

“Philadelphia schools are on life support,” says Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and activist with the community-labor group Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, “and they’re about to pull the plug.”

The district is seeking $313 million before the end of the month. It is requesting more tax dollars—$60 million more from the city, $120 million from the state. But a plurality of its plan to close the deficit comes from union concessions and givebacks, to the tune of $133 million, most of which come from Philadelphia teachers.

Even at a time of widespread austerity, the scope of concessions demanded of Philly teachers is jaw-dropping. Under the district’s contract giveback demands, teachers earning more than $55,000 a year would receive a 13 percent pay cut, along with a 13 percent hike in health care contributions. Tenure and sabbaticals would be eliminated, the workday would be lengthened (and teachers would be forced to work additional hours off the clock without pay). Librarians would be eliminated, and schools would no longer be required to have counselors. Limits on class sizes would be lifted.

The proposal led Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch to write:

The time to stop this downward spiral of bulls–it is right now. … If this really is the deal, Philadelphia teachers need to walk off the job. That’s right — strike. And anyone who cares about the ability of the middle class to raise a family — particularly a well-educated family — needs to stand behind them.

City and state politicians might be able to justify the measures as painful but necessary decisions at a time of “shared sacrifice” if they weren’t simultaneously handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations and Wall Street, upping their contributions to charter schools, and building a new prison. Last month, for example, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a corporate tax cut that would cost the state $600-800 million per year, more than double Philadelphia schools’ deficit for the next fiscal year.

“How can you call for shared sacrifice while huge businesses are getting a tax break?” says Whitehorne.

The district spends more than 10 times the national average servicing its debt, with an astonishing $280 million—12 percent of its entire budget—going to interest payments and $161 million going to Wall Street firms in what have been called ”toxic” interest rate swaps, under criticism in other cities for unjustly robbing schools of resources.

“This is a [gubernatorial] administration that has bent over backwards to accommodate corporate interests,” says Whitehorne.

Charter schools have had to make some cuts over the years, but their percentage of the district’s total education budget—30 percent, at $729 million for FY 2014 (PDF)—continues to grow, with an estimated 40 percent of the city’s students slated to attend charters by 2017. And perhaps most incredibly, within days of the layoffs announcement, the state began work on a $400 million new prison north of Philadelphia.

The expansion of prisons at the time of massive school budget cuts makes some sense, since the 3,783 layoffs include the total elimination of all 1,202 of the district’s school safety workers, who monitor cafeterias, hallways and other areas of schools to de-escalate conflicts and violence between students, a longstanding problem in Philadelphia. If safety workers are eliminated, only police officers will remain in the schools, which could easily accelerate what activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Doris Hogue works at South Philadelphia High. She has worked as a school safety worker for 20 years, and is a member of UNITE HERE Local 247.  “At one time, there were interracial fights going on,” Hogue says, referencing widespread violence between African American and Asian American students in the school system several years ago. “We developed rapport with the children. They began to trust us, and we were able to help diminish much of the violence.” She says the number of violent incidents is down in her school. In a report released by UNITE HERE, 40 percent of student safety staff reported recently witnessing a violent incident where there were not enough safety personnel present to address it. If the layoffs go through as planned, there won’t be any.

“We’re not just safety staff—we’re like their mothers,” Hogue says. “They come to us if they hear a fight’s going to happen, or if they’re being bullied. I don’t think the district recognizes what will happen in September when the children come back to school without us there.”

Philadelphia was subject to what the Rand Corporation called “the nation’s largest experiment in the private management of public schools.” As reporter Daniel Denvir notes, that project included the takeover of Philadelphia public schools in 2002 by the state, which then established the School Reform Commission (SRC) “to oversee the district and turned 45 schools over to private managers, including for-profit educational management organizations.” But according to Rand, despite the massive number of schools privately managed, student achievement did not improve—and the school’s deficit only deepened. Rather than pull the district out of the red, privatization plunged Philadelphia schools further into it, thus justifying the need for further austerity measures.

Students, teachers and other education workers, and community members seem to be stepping up their pushback to the draconian cuts. In March, 19 people were arrested at the SRC meeting where the closures were voted on, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. (Whitehorne says those charges were dropped yesterday.) Students have ledmultiple walkouts throughout the city. Protests are continuing to ratchet up, including a scheduled rally in Harrisburg, the state capital, at the end of the month. But with almost half of the $323 million to plug the deficit coming on the backs of public-sector workers, the options for Philadelphia schools seem to range from bad to worse.

“If they don’t work anything out, and the money doesn’t come in, I feel it would be so dangerous for any schools to open,” says Hogue, the school safety worker. Come September, “I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like. It’s not going to be good.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on June 14, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He has written for SalonThe Nation,The American ProspectJacobin, and the Chicago Reader. Most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern.

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Chicago Teachers Strike Ends, But ‘Multi-Year Revolution’ Begins

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Chicago teachers–and their students–returned to their classrooms today after the union’s 800-member House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday to suspend their seven-day strike. The local contract fight drew national attention to the clash between two different visions of school reform.

Within the next two weeks, roughly 29,000 teachers and staff will vote on their new contract. Reactions from union delegates who talked with members walking the picket lines–and who did not vote on whether to recommend adoption of the contract–indicate that teachers are likely to approve the deal.

Already the debate is starting over who won and what lessons should be learned.

Here are some initial thoughts:

1. Teachers, students, parents and the public are the immediate winners–not because the contract was a sweeping victory, or the fundamental problems of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were solved, but because the contract limits the encroachment of corporate-style school reform. Such reform adopts a punitive attitude towards teachers, rather than a collaborative approach to encourage continual improvement while weeding out the hopelessly incompetent. The reform agenda also relies heavily on high-stakes, standardized tests that distort education and have proven an inaccurate and unreliable measure of teacher performance.

In the public-relations battle over who was helping “the kids,” the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) held its own by emphasizing how it successfully bargained for a commitment to hire 600 new teachers in art, music and other “enrichment” courses. CTU also extracted promises from CPS to hire more counselors, supply textbooks by the first day of school and include a parent representative on a class-size review committee.

2. Defenders of corporate reforms–such as the Chicago Tribune editorial page–see the contract as their victory: Teachers will be evaluated partly on student test scores and the school year will be longer (but not as long as mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted). But CTU had to make some of its concessions to comply with state law, and some of those state changes came in response to conditions the Obama administration placed on federal aid.

3. The union came away stronger. Members were inspired by the strike, the rallies and the strong public support. That support came especially from low-income African-American and Latino parents, whom anti-union writers and public spokespeople continued to describe as hostile to teachers (despite two polls to the contrary). Ultimately, the strike was a success and will serve as a model for the future because the new, more radical CTU leadership educated and organized members far in advance; organized parental allies and public support; and kept faith in internal union democracy, open debate and ultimate deference to the will of rank-and-file members.

It’s little surprise that on the day the strike ended, top Emanuel advisor, charter school advocate and “wealthy venture capitalist” (as the Tribune described him) Bruce Rauner told a right-wing policy conference, “The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers.” That will be harder now, but the Tribune editorialists had another solution: accelerate the closing of public schools and opening of publicly funded but private charter schools and prohibit teachers from striking. In any case, Rauner sees the strike as the start of “a multi-year revolution.” His reactionary “revolution” imposed from above, however, now faces a revolution from below.

As union delegates left the meeting yesterday, one after another stressed, “We’re not done,” “It’s not the end,” or, as middle school teacher Mike Murphy put it, “The contract is a first step in a long struggle for justice.”

The bigger battles ahead include fights over CPS’s plan to close 80 to 200 schools and open more charters, fair funding for the schools, proper implementation of the contract and much more. Meanwhile, the national American Federation of Teachers (with which CTU is affiliated) has already had some success with a parallel, ongoing effort to organize more charter school teachers.

But these local Chicago fights have less chance of succeeding if Democratic politicians throughout much of the country–starting with the administration–continue to embrace corporate school reform and reject a more collaborative approach that starts–as CTU president Karen Lewis said Tuesday–by taking into account the views of those who do the work.

Democrats should reject the corporate reforms not just because they ape Republican policies or because they’re anti-union or because they give up on government–all good enough reasons. They should also do so because research shows that most of the corporate nostrums don’t work (including evaluating teachers based on student test scores) and that charters are no panacea (with more performing worse than comparable public schools than the small share performing better).

Of course, education by itself will not significantly reduce inequality and poverty, both of which make teaching more difficult, especially in big city schools like Chicago, where more than four-fifths of students qualify for free lunches on the basis of low family income. Ultimately, reforming public education must be part of–not a substitute for–a broader movement for economic justice.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Charter Schools Stay Open During Strike, But Solidarity Lurks Inside

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For the second day in a row on Tuesday, tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members and supporters, clad in red shirts, flooded the city’s downtown to push for concessions in contract negotiations with the city. As the third-largest school district in the nation, and the birthplace of Arne Duncan’s model of education reform, the Chicago teachers’ strike may well turn into a referendum on the direction of public education nationwide—including on the growth of non-unionized charter schools, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to continue expanding in the city.

But as striking teachers continue to turn the city into a sea of red, many charter-school operators are seeing green. For the Chicago’s 52,000 charter students, school is in session as usual this week—a fact some are touting as a boon for charter expansion.

The longer the strike continues, charter operators claim, the more likely it is that parents will look to options not impacted by labor disputes.

“If this strike happens, it will awaken parents’ interest in terms of ‘Why can’t we have more choice’ (and) ‘Why do we have to be stuck without having a voice,'” United Neighborhood Organization CEO Juan Rangel told the Chicago Tribune last week. “I think parents are going to be frustrated when they see 50,000 kids having an education, going to school without interruption and their kids are not.”

The teachers’ strike, the first in Chicago in 25 years, is also the first ever to take place in a city with a large charter sector. About 12 percent of Chicago students are enrolled in charters, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter notes that charter schools are “the elephant in the room” during the negotiations. Charter expansion is broader than any set of issues that the union can resolve through a contract, but the district is counting on the continued growth of charters as it pushes changes that will lead to more school closings and teacher layoffs. By striking, the CTU hopes to stave off many of the measures pushed by charter advocates—merit-based pay, longer school days and “flexibility” in teacher retention.

Many charter operators have aligned themselves publicly against the teachers’ union. After Rangel blasted the CTU in a recent speech to the City Club of Chicago, CTU staffer Kenzo Shibata wrote in the Huffington Post that the influential charter chain was being used by the mayor as a “proxy” to attack the union.

But Potter says that the role of charter teachers during the strike could “cut both ways,” providing not only a foil for unionized teachers but a potential base for expanded organizing. The strike could also help build the nascent solidarity between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and the small but growing number of unionized charters in the city. To date, 14 charter schools have unionized under the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) Local 4343, which like the CTU is part of the American Federation of Teachers. (State law mandates that public and charters school teachers cannot be part of the same local or collectively bargain together.)

“Charter schools are often used to put a wedge between teachers,” Brian Harris, the president of ACTS, tells In These Times. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.” At a recent AFT convention, ACTS Local 4343 put forward a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in Chicago.

Harris says that the teachers’ strike could call attention to working conditions within charters, including long hours, high turnover and lower pay than their public sector counterparts. While the Illinois Interactive Report Card reports that the average CTU salary is $71,000, estimates put the average Chicago charter teacher salary at $45,000.

On Monday, ACTS Local 4343 issued a statement of solidarity with the CTU, and Harris says that many charter teachers are wearing red shirts or donating food and funds in support of strikers. But thanks to the controversial practice of housing charters in public-school buildings, this week some charter students and teachers are walking into school across picket lines.

While some analysts predicted that a strike could see picketers confronting charter teachers, the CTU has emphasized solidarity between the sectors. But at one “co-located” school (there are about 20 in Chicago), teachers reportedly picketed outside of the entrance of the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men in Englewood on Monday, chanting, “stop the cuts.”

At Doolittle Elementary School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, picketers said that teachers at the adjoining Chicago High School for the Arts had mostly been using the back door rather than walking past the lines. Since the two schools began sharing space, Doolittle has lost part of its third floor to art studio space for charter students, a development that angered many elementary-school teachers. But strikers also said that some charter teachers and parents had arrived wearing red shirts to show their support. “They’re doing what they need to do, and we’re doing what we need to do,” one Doolittle teacher on the picket line told In These Times.

All of the city’s unionized charter schools have no-strike clauses in their contracts, says Harris, but those that share buildings with public schools have been finding other ways to support the strike. Chicago Talent Development Charter High School, the city’s first union-backed charter, has suspended classes for the first week of the strike after discussions with neighboring Crane High School, saying it wants to “maximize the potential for a productive and positive working relationship among all adults in this building.” But it has announced that it will reopen them, regardless of whether the strike has ended, on September 17.

Charters are criticized for sucking public funding out of open enrollment schools and weakening the ranks of teachers’ unions. But most unions have now accepted charters as a fact of life and moved toward unionizing their teachers. According to data collected by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about 12 percent of charters nationwide are unionized.

The decision by teachers’ unions to stop fighting charters tooth and nail, and in some cases to back the expansion of unionized charters, has been criticized by some as collusion. But Potter emphasizes that the question of charters is in fact “the perennial question for the labor movement: How do you organize the unorganized? Any union that fails to answer that question is a dinosaur.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Burns, an In These Times staff writer, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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Chicago Teachers Strike for Fair Contract (But Really for Better Schools)

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Early this morning, Chicago teachers organized picket lines at all entrances to William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side. They were joined by dozens of students, parents and local community residents. It was the first day in 25 years that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)–the first teachers union in the country–had gone out on strike, and picketers banged drums, gobbled doughnuts, waved at passing motorists (and the driver of a passing waste truck), and chanted with militant cheeriness: “Lies and tricks will not divide/parents and teachers side by side.”

Late Sunday night, the union leaders decided that, despite some progress in the nearly year-long contract negotiations, the school board had failed to satisfy the union’s 29,000 teachers and support staff in several key areas.

CTU president Karen Lewis, leader of an internal reform movement that took the union’s top offices in 2010, said the offer from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did not preserve medical benefits and did not provide adequate job security in a system thrown into turmoil by school closures and charter school openings. CTU also objects to a new system for evaluating teachers that relies heavily on improvement in student test scores.

Lewis said the two sides are not far apart on the issue of pay, including compensation for a longer day that CPS imposed this year. Sources differ as to the amounts on the table: Mayor Emanuel said the board offered a 16 percent raise over four years; board president David Vitale described the proposal as 3 percent in the first year, then 2 percent each of three following years; and the CTU characterized neither its latest proposal nor the CPS response.

But at its heart, the strike is over the union’s deep opposition to what it calls a “corporate reform agenda” that pursues a competitive or punitive relationship with teachers, rather than a collaborative one. Examples include blaming teachers and unions for educational shortcomings, promoting private but publicly financed charter schools, focusing on high-stakes tests and tying pay to merit.

CTU has instead pushed for smaller classes, enriched curriculum, better supplies and facilities, fairer and fuller funding (including the return of some public revenue long diverted into “TIFs” to subsidize developers), more counselors and support staff, respect for teacher professionalism, and a bigger say for teachers in their schools.

That clash puts the union at odds with CPS, the mayor and President Obama–whose education secretary, Arne Duncan, boosted the corporate-reform agenda as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school superintendent. It also represents a more forceful rejection of such reforms than espoused by the national union, which nonetheless supports the CTU strike.

Unfortunately, CTU’s leaders have not pierced effectively through the cloud of misinformation coming from the mayor and allies (including groups with a financial stake in charter schools) to make clear what they’re for and against. Also, a new state law limits the union’s ability to negotiate many of the most important policy issues.

But Emanuel’s unpopularity among unions has lifted union support, including backing from UNITE-HERE members working in the school lunchrooms, who offered to join teacher picket lines even though the food workers’ earlier negotiation of a contract precludes their joining the walkout.

Emanuel said the strike was unnecessary, unwanted (by him), and wrong–“a strike of choice.” But one teacher tells In These Times it was virtually inevitable given Emanuel’s insulting, disrespectful attitude towards teachers and the union, his unilateral imposition of major changes without consultation and his hostility towards most public schools. I asked John Cusick, a union delegate who has taught fifth grade for 12 years at Ray School, what he thought of Emanuel calling teachers’ action a “choice,” not a necessity. After a long pause, he said, “We don’t have a lot of choices in CPS. We had no input into the longer school day. We’re given no input into how the day is structured. We’re given no input into whether the barrage of testing our students are undergoing makes sense. We have no choice in electing a school board. That’s a choice we’d like to have.”

Instead of experienced professionals having a voice, the board consists of rich people such as billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, whose businesses benefit from TIF funds that divert money from schools. Meanwhile, she sent her children to the private University of Chicago Lab School (as Emanuel now does), which she praises for its generous, well-appointed facilities. Lab is a few blocks from Ray (a fine public school that my kids attended), but worlds apart in amenities.

“We’d like to be involved in discussing class size,” Cusick adds. “We’d also like more social workers and youth guidance counselors. We’d like to be funded to the hilt like [the rich northern suburb of] Winnetka. Last year Ray had classes with as many as 41 students. Let’s have those choices.”

And beyond those strictly educational policy choices, there are the critical environmental issues–violence and poverty. “We do think there’s a crisis in American education,” Cusick says, “and it has to do with poverty, but officials offer charter schools. In ten years they’ll realize charter schools don’t solve the problem. We don’t need quick fixes. We need long-term commitment and investment.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Labor Day’s Legacy: A More Inclusive America

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Amy DeanAt some point in their lives, almost all parents think about making a will to ensure that their assets are passed on to the next generation. But material gains, of course, are the least of what we give our children. Far more important are the values we teach them.

This Labor Day, I propose we think less about the material gains that working Americans have secured for their families over the past century. Instead, we should consider the values that organized labor embodies that we might hope to pass along to our children.

What I inherited from my grandparents — and what I want to see the labor movement impart to the next generation — is a legacy of inclusion.

In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to this country as Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. Although they worked low-paying jobs in the textile and apparel sectors, they were deeply motivated by a vision of building a better society.

Part of their motivation was secular, and part came out of their faith. Their vision of creating a better America involved a politics of mutual aid and mutual support. Working with this in mind, they helped to establish some of the foundational institutions of our democracy. Their generation built hospitals and synagogues. They built public schools. And they built trade unions.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought me from meeting to meeting, where we would hear people talk and argue. They would discuss pooling their resources to take care of someone who was sick, or to bury the dead, or to help a family whose breadwinner had been suddenly thrown out of work. Those informal networks of support, which existed for generations, were the precursors to modern trade unions. In more recent decades, unions have been the means for employees to come together, work in their collective interest, and help provide one another with a measure of economic security.

The result has been profound. Because my grandparents’ generation built unions of textile and apparel workers — as well as unions in other industrial sectors of the economy — their children were able to go to college. Many in the next generation became educators and public servants, and they built organizations of their own. Today’s teachers unions and public sector unions stand in this same tradition of being a bulwark of middle class life in America.

On this Labor Day, we can witness a new wave of immigrants coming to this country with a vision of building a better life. They may come from different countries, their complexions may be different, and they may be more likely to work as janitors or housekeepers than as factory workers. But their hopes and aspirations are the same.

The question for us as a society is: Will we leave a legacy behind of inclusion and preserve our country as the place that the world looks to as a haven of opportunity? Or will we take America down a very alien path, close our doors, and become a nation laden with fear-mongering, scapegoating, and exclusion?

This is an especially important question for Labor Day, because organized labor has been the central institution in our country that has allowed previous generations of immigrants — people like my grandparents — to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. Today, as we work to create pathways that will allow newly arrived immigrants to weave themselves into the civic fabric of American society, a large part of our efforts must be to create a revitalized labor movement, one eager to welcome them into its ranks.

We need look no further than labor’s past to give us direction toward a more inclusive future.

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

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