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The Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Implications for More Than Just Education

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CREDIT: Flickr/Peoplesworld

The Chicago teachers’ strike recently rocked the Windy City, affecting approximately 350,000 public school students who had to do without their educators for seven days. The strike drew media attention from all corners of the country, and accomplished more than Chicago educators originally set out to achieve by restoring a general sense of optimism to unions and labor movements.

Ten thousand Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members donned red t-shirts on the first day of the strike (the city’s first teachers’ strike since 1987) in downtown Chicago, halting traffic and grabbing the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the main source of the union's frustration.

The actions escalated, culminating in city-wide walk-outs, picketing, and marches as tens of thousands of Chicago public educators gathered for over a week to publicly declare their demands over the next few days.

The strike may be framed as a counterattack on Chicago city officials’ war on teachers but it can also be seen, more generally, as a successful counterattack on the city’s assault on the CTU’s collective bargaining rights, which holds grand implications for labor in general.

The CTU strike, in essence, was a fight to restore power over Chicago’s education system to those who rightfully deserve that power: the educators themselves. The implications of the strike and its results, however, reach much further than the Chicago public school system.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson framed the CTU example as a “struggle for working people everywhere.” Christine Campbell, a policy director at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, also chimed in on the implications for labor, stating that the strikes show that unions “still matter.”

The strike has no doubt restored an often elusive sense of optimism to unions throughout the United States during a time when union participation is at an all-time low—only 11.8 percent of working Americans are union members.

Though it may have seemed drastic for the city's entire population of public school teachers to go on strike, the week-long protest was an act of desperation in a city where government officials have been generally apathetic and unresponsive to the educators' collective grievances.

Throughout his tenure as mayor, Emanuel has been particularly harsh to the CTU and the Chicago school district, despite the fact that the schools are currently suffering from a $667 million deficit.

Early on in his term, Emanuel eliminated a 4 percent raise for teachers. He also attempted to bypass bargaining with the CTU by negotiating directly with individual schools over the issue of instituting a longer school day. 

Emanuel has prioritized the changing of the way the city’s schools are run by attempting to incorporate more private sector involvement in the education system. This included the blatant favoring of charter schools over public schools, which intensified the frustration felt by public school educators.

Though public schools comprise 69 percent of all schools in Chicago, they have received less than 50 percent of the money allotted to school upgrading and construction by the city's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) public funds program. Nine of the school's private, selective enrollment schools have received 24 percent of that money even though they account for less than one percent of all schools in the city.

In all, Emanuel has diverted $250 million in TIF funds from public schools.

Advocates of Emanuel’s “business model” of education placed the blame for student failures on “bad teachers” rather than seeing reality for what it was: a broken system.

All of this—the misdirecting of funds and the misplaced blame—inevitably led to desperation on the part of Chicago public educators.

Chris Christianson, a teacher for 25 years, expressed that teachers felt so desperate to have their demands fairly negotiated that they felt a strike was the only leverage CTU members would have over city officials.  

There has been the tendency to blame teachers’ unions for lack of progress in schools because they act as buffers to prevent “bad teachers” from getting fired. Liza Featherstone debunked this notion in an article for Dissent Magazine, in which she points out that there is no correlation between unionization and lack of firings for teachers.

In fact, in Massachusetts—a state in which nearly all public school teachers are unionized—the firing rate for teachers is double that of North Carolina, in which about two percent of teachers belong to a union.

Getting that argument out of the way, we can look at these strikes from a fresh perspective. Teachers were not advocating reforms that would necessarily prevent them from being fired; rather, they advocated reforms that would unburden them in terms of stress and would therefore allow them to give their students the optimal performance they deserve.

The CTU should not be blamed for the suspension of classes for a week; rather, Chicago city officials are at fault for pushing the union to such an act of desperation due to the continued assault on the school district's dwindling funds.

All of these factors ultimately pushed the teachers’ union to fight to regain the power that had gradually slipped out of their control. In July, an overwhelming 90 percent of the CTU voted to authorize a strike if contract negotiations were to fail. Once action was authorized this September, Emanuel was finally forced to directly and fairly address the demands of the city's teachers.

Among those demands: a contract creating a longer school day, an overhaul of the teacher evaluation model that places importance on standardized test performance and various other concessions that would destabilize Emanuel’s plan to running of the city on a so-called “business model” of education.

The new contract, which the CTU will vote on in the upcoming months, includes a new teacher evaluation model that minimizes focus on standardized test performance, in addition to the hiring of hundreds of teachers in areas of education that are severely understaffed, such as art and music. The tentative contract also provides for longer school days and reimbursements for those teachers who purchase school supplies with their own money.

The success of the teachers’ actions demonstrates that those who make up unions, when organized and determined to fight the system in which they operate, can work collectively to have their voices heard.

The strikes provide a powerful model of resistance for all types of labor movements dedicated to affecting change. The city’s thousands of educators fought in solidarity to achieve results that they wanted, and showed that sometimes the normal functioning of everyday life must be disrupted in order to ensure that the public and the government appreciate their power.

Without the power in solidarity and the sense of unification provided by the CTU, Chicago teachers would be fruitlessly battling city officials' systematic assault on the education system. If the union had been prohibited from striking, as teachers' unions in several states are, they would have been defenseless against a local government rife with apathy for the system's numerous troubles. Chicago teachers would have been stuck working for a crumbling education system which wasn't working for them.

Ezra Klein pointed out that unions sometimes provide the only way for employees to gain leverage over their employers and safely raise any issues they may have with their jobs. In some cases, it takes a reactionary process to make this known to the public, such as in the case where Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) tried to suppress collective bargaining rights for public employees. But the CTU strike demonstrated that such large, organized unions always have access to ineffable power, and that they need not wait until their rights are violated to act against the powers that be.

For youth across the country, the strike is significant not only because it rocked an entire city’s education system, but also because of what it may represent for future educators in the United States.

Many of the teachers involved in this year’s strike were most likely students 25 years ago during the previous Chicago teachers’ strike. They grew up with this model of social demonstration, and repeated it this year when city officials refused to meet their demands.

The news of the strike ravaged headlines, showing thousands of educators lining the streets. Such a powerful image is one that will no doubt stay with the hundreds of thousands of students affected by this year’s strike, and millions more throughout the country who watched it unfold in the news.

Chicago students’ role models beat the system through the systematic and organized use of disruptive action. The strike will be something that some current students will reflect upon for guidance once they themselves are members of unions.

Though the Chicago teachers’ strike is over, the effects are far-reaching, and labor organizations throughout the country will no doubt benefit from the undeniable power that the Chicago Teachers' Union flaunted during its week-long strike.

Amanda Fox-Rouch is a reporter for Campus Progress.

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