Chicago teachers seek good contract

Since the third week of August, the Chicago Teachers Union has been practicing how to conduct a strike. About a third of Chicago’s public schools — those in so-called “track E” — start in mid-August, and the CTU has been conducting informational pickets in front of these schools before and after classes.

The pickets explain to the community that small class size, early childhood education, school counselors and social workers, and well-maintained facilities not only help teachers teach, they help students learn.

The web page details the union’s ideas of what students deserve.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his billionaire “astroturf” backers (astroturfing is promoting political change that benefits corporate interests under the guise of being a grass-roots organization) tried to stop the CTU from striking by getting the state legislature to pass a law requiring at least 75 percent of CTU members to vote “yes” before they could authorize a strike. The mayor’s supporters bragged that this was a higher percentage than any public union had ever gotten for a strike vote in Chicago. (Emmanuel is President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.)

When the CTU called for a strike vote this past June, 90 percent of its members voted and 98 percent of those voted “yes.”

The legislature added days to the school year, two hours to each school day and removed the CTU’s right to bargain over such issues. The Chicago Public Schools system on its own withheld a budgeted 4 percent wage increase because, it claimed, it was out of money.

When the CPS tried, in the middle of the year, to increase the school day, the union pointed out that such a major change needed planning. Then an arbitrator agreed with the union that such a major increase in working hours should be compensated with a major wage increase — on the order of 15 to 20 percent.

At that point, the CPS and the CTU came to an interim agreement to hire 450 new teachers to supply students with physical education, arts, music and major foreign languages.

The head of the school board, Jean-Claude Brizard, claims that the longer school day is working well at track E schools now in session, while Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, says the longer school day isn’t working “and if we just leave it up to these guys, it will never be a better school day.” (Chicagoist, Aug. 24) A number of blog posts from local activists support Lewis.

No ‘race to top’

Arne Duncan, the current secretary of education, was formerly the CPS’s chief executive officer. He developed his ideas on the value of competition and closing “underperforming” schools during the seven years he ran the CPS, resulting in “Race to the Top” (Obama’s answer to George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”).

When Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the American Federation of Teachers biannual convention in Detroit at the end of July, the CTU conducted a very careful protest. Their delegates and a few allies held up 8 ½-by-11-inch yellow pieces of paper with the slogan “STOP RACE to the TOP.”

The leaflet the CTU handed out to delegates at the end of Biden’s speech makes the point, “Education funding shouldn’t be a race with winners and losers. Fully fund education for all.”

CTU President Lewis came in first in the voting for the AFT’s executive board, which was held after the demonstration.

In a CTU-produced video called “AstroTurf” on YouTube, the CTU draws the connection between its local struggles and the nationwide campaign to privatize education, make oodles of money and destroy public service unions: “Teachers, parents and community supporters in Chicago have fought valiantly — marching, filling auditoriums at hearings and parent meetings, even occupying a school and taking over a school board meeting. …

“But now we find ourselves facing new opponents — national education privatizers, backed by some of the nation’s wealthiest people. They are running radio ads, increasing press attacks, and mounting a PR campaign to discredit the CTU and the benefits of public education.”

If the CTU manages to maintain its ties to the community and the solid unity it has developed, it has a good chance to win its local struggle and push back this national campaign against public education and unions.

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