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Chicago Teachers Didn’t Win Everything, But They’ve Transformed the City—And the Labor Movement

Monday, November 4th, 2019

Chicago teachers and staff returned to the classrooms Friday after more than two weeks on strike. Their walkout lasted longer than the city’s landmark 2012 strike, as well as those in Los Angeles and Oakland earlier this year.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike also lasted long enough for the season’s first snowstorm to blanket thousands of teachers and staff who surrounded City Hall Thursday morning to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot agree to restore missed instructional days as a final condition of their returning to work. After a few hours, the union and the mayor arrived at a compromise of five make-up days—a move Lightfoot had resisted until the eleventh hour, despite the fact that it’s a standard conclusion to teacher strikes.

Over the course of an often-bitter battle, CTU and its sister union, SEIU 73, overcame a series of such ultimatums from the recently elected mayor. Before the strike, Lightfoot had refused to write issues such as staffing increases or class size caps into a contract at all. Following a budget address last week, Lightfoot vowed that there was no more money left for a “bailout” of the school district. But a tentative agreement approved by CTU delegates Wednesday night requires the school district to put a nurse and social worker in every school within five years and allocates $35 million more annually to reduce overcrowded classrooms. Both unions also won pay bumps for support staff who have made poverty wages.

Yet these substantial gains still fell short of what many members had hoped to achieve, given that they were fighting for basic investments already enjoyed by most suburban school districts—investments that Lightfoot herself had campaigned on this spring.

“It took our members 10 days to bring these promises home,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told reporters after an agreement was reached over instructional days. “But I want to tell my members: They have changed Chicago.”

Members of SEIU 73 ratified their contract this week, and CTU members will now have 10 days to do so. But the impact of the two-week walkout is likely to extend far beyond the contracts themselves.

During daily rallies that drew tens of thousands of teachers, staff and supporters, the unions repeatedly made the argument that there was plenty of wealth in the city to invest in schools and public services—it was just concentrated in the wrong hands. They also touched on what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions, criticizing the resources lavished on police at their expense. The strike’s momentum will carry over most immediately into a budget battle with Lightfoot, with the teachers’ union partnering with a larger coalition fighting to tax corporations and luxury real-estate at a higher rate in order to fund affordable housing, public mental health clinics and other services.

The teachers union also shone a light on an opaque financing tool known as Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, that’s intended to funnel additional property tax dollars to “blighted” areas, but that critics say is akin to a “corporate slush fund.” On Tuesday, nine CTU members were arrested at the headquarters of Sterling Bay to protest the city’s decision to award the Wall-Street backed developer more than $1 billion of TIF subsidies earlier this year.

“That day in and of itself was huge because we were able to call out the city’s hypocrisy,” says Roxana González, an 8th-grade teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy who was among those arrested. “The fight to fund what our communities need is a much longer one than our contract fight, and teachers across the city are going to continue to be a part of it.”

The two-week walkout will also likely have reverberations for teachers and other union members outside of Chicago. The CTU’s 2012 strike helped inspire a national network called “Bargaining for the Common Good” that has brought together unions seeking to expand the scope of contract bargaining beyond pay and benefits.

“In many ways this was both the toughest and most visionary strike fought yet on the principals of Bargaining for the Common Good,” says Joseph McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

“The union engaged in some effective popular education about the structural issues of school underfunding that it can follow up on in the future. Although it was a difficult fight, the CTU has come away with gains that will make the schools better and encourage teachers elsewhere to fight for similar things.”

One of CTU’s boldest “common good” demands was for affordable housing—a move that captured national headlines and became a centerpiece of the mayor’s narrative that the union was stalling negotiations through an overly political agenda.

While the union didn’t win on housing assistance for new teachers or gain the school district’s support for rent control, one of CTU’s earliest and clearest victories was an agreement to hire staff specifically to support the more than 17,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools—an approach that could be a model for other school districts.

Other key wins on social justice issues include new guarantees for bilingual education, including more dedicated teachers for English language learners, and a declaration that Chicago schools are sanctuary spaces.

These are vital issues in a school district where nearly half of students are Latinx and nearly one-fifth are English language learners, says González, who also helped push for these changes as a member of the CTU’s Latinx caucus. She has previously faced a lack of resources and the potential for discipline when she tried to aid a former student who reached out to her for help with a pending deportation case. As part of the new agreement on sanctuary schools, the school district will create a training program for staff on how to respond to ICE presence in schools and assist immigrant students. It will also allocate up to $200,000 annually to help employees navigate immigration issues.

The victories are less clear-cut when it comes to the key issue of support staffing. The district will begin hiring more nurses and social workers in the highest-need schools this year, but it will take five years before they’re guaranteed for every school. And while the CTU has highlighted that nine out of 10 majority-black schools in Chicago do not have a librarian, the agreement creates a joint union-school district committee on “staffing equity” that will provide a path—but not a guarantee—for high-need schools to hire additional librarians, counselors or restorative justice coordinators.

Some teachers say they were prepared to continue striking until more progress was made on staffing, smaller caps on class sizes and regaining teacher prep time eliminated under previous Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But facing an intransigent mayor, worsening weather and a November 1 deadline for the suspension of their employer health insurance, CTU delegates ultimately voted on Wednesday night to approve the tentative agreement by a margin of 60%.

Class size remains a particular concern for instructors like Jeni Crone, an art teacher at Lindbloom Math and Science Academy. While CTU won for the first time an avenue to enforce hard caps on class sizes, the recommended limits themselves remain the same: Up to 31 in high school classes, depending on the subject, which can reach 38 students before an automatic remedy is triggered.

Crone previously taught at Kelvyn Park High School, but lost her job there in 2017 amidst a round of budget cuts that led to the loss of 11 positions at the school. She says she repeatedly saw high class-size caps used as justification to merge two smaller classes into one larger one. Before her position was cut, her three art classes were combined into two, with 34 and 35 students, respectively.

“It’s one of the easiest ways for CPS to save money,” she says. “But we should be normalizing smaller class sizes.”

Still, Crone says she is “cautiously optimistic” about the contract’s wins, and is determined above all to make sure that union members remain united with students and parents to continue demanding more.

“I am not totally content, but the way I see it, it’s OK for us not to be content,” Crone says. “That means I still want better for my students, and we should always want better for them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Corporate America freaks out over Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Ben White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 18th, 2019

kari-lydersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chicago Teachers Won Public Support for Their Strike. Here’s How.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

As 35,000 Chicago teachers, school support staff, and park district workers are set to begin a major strike on October 17, they boast the backing of students, parents, community organizations, and local unions who see the potential work stoppage as a crucial battle in the fight for a more just and equitable city. Thanks to the solidarity efforts of community and labor groups, more Chicagoans support the possible strike than oppose it, according to a recent poll by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot—who was elected this year on a progressive platform—to put in writing her campaign promises to improve the learning conditions of the city’s majority Black and Brown public school students. Among other things, the unions are fighting to have a full-time nurse, librarian and social worker in every school, caps on class sizes, affordable housing for students and their families, an end to outside contracting of school services, and better pay and benefits.

For their part, Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have urged the CTU to give up demands for better resourced schools and accept a 5-year contract that primarily includes wage increases. The editorial boards for the city’s two major daily newspapers have lined up behind the mayor, telling teachers to “take the deal,” though a whopping 94% of CTU members voted to authorize a strike.

“It’s so vital we not allow CPS or the mayor to divide the critical people in this equation—which are students and parents—from the unions, which they would like to do,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, co-chair of the Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign (CTSSC)’s labor committee.

“If CPS and the mayor are able to create a wedge between the union and the community, it’s going to be a far less successful strike, so it’s about bringing those forces together,” continued Lalasz, who is also a steward with National Nurses United.

To bolster support for the CTU and SEIU Local 73, the CTSSC has held multiple events to bring teachers and community members together by having discussions about the conditions in the schools and the importance of the unions’ demands. One such event was an October 10 town hall featuring speakers from over a dozen community organizations and local unions.

One of the speakers was Catherine Henchek, member of the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers. She explained that when her son enrolled in CPS as a kindergartner 12 years ago, she was told that he wouldn’t be able to get his medication every day because the school only had a nurse once per week.

“Twelve years later, we’re still fighting for this,” Henchek said. “So many schools do not have a nurse, or they have agency nurses that are coming in, a different nurse every day. That’s not helpful for kids with complex medical needs. They need someone who knows them.”

At an October 14 rally of union members and supporters, high school senior Miracle Boyd talked about why union demands for improved wraparound services matter to students like her. “We as CPS students have to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one to gun violence every day,” said Boyd. “We need trauma-informed schools, social workers, and therapists.”

Boyd is an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led anti-violence, restorative justice group. “I have friends who miss school on the daily because… no one can help them with the hurt and pain of losing a classmate,” she said. “The resources students don’t have won’t allow them the opportunity to heal from past or continuous trauma.”

The CTSSC has existed since CTU’s historic 2012 strike, when it mobilized community turnout at rallies and pickets, coordinated the union’s strike headquarters, and served as an information hub. Since then, and increasingly over the past 20 months, a wave of massive teacher strikes has rocked the country—offering innovative examples of community solidarity that are now being replicated in Chicago.

One such example is Bread for Ed, a fundraising and solidarity project to provide meals to students and teachers for the duration of the strike. This program would provide a critical service, as over 400,000 Chicago students depend on school meal programs for breakfast and lunch.

Pioneered by the East Bay, California chapter of Democratic Socialists of America during the 7-day Oakland teacher strike this February, the Bread for Ed model has been adopted by Chicago DSA and Chicago Jobs with Justice. The two groups recently set up a Bread for Ed GoFundMe page, surpassing the original fundraising target of $10,000 in only three days. If a strike happens, food will be prepared and served at neighborhood organizations, aldermanic offices, churches, and local restaurants, as well as on picket lines.

“So far the response [to Bread for Ed] has been overwhelmingly positive. Tons of people are reaching out wanting to get involved,” Abby Agriesti, co-chair of the Chicago DSA Labor Working Group, told In These Times. “We want to make sure that the media and city can’t use the lack of food for students as a cudgel against the teachers and staff, blaming them.”

Community supporters also worked with the unions to hold an Art Build from October 4 to 6—another model borrowed from this year’s Oakland teacher strike. Held at CTU headquarters, the Art Build brought rank-and-file union members together with parents, students, allies, and artists to put their creativity to work by making picket signs, banners (including parachute banners), and posters to be used at strike pickets and rallies.

The CTSSC has organized weekly call-ins to the mayor’s office and drafted an online solidarity statement for individual union members around the country to sign onto, which garnered nearly 500 signatures within a week. The solidarity campaign is also circulating a statement of support pledging to join CTU and SEIU members on the picket lines, which has been signed by over 60 community and labor organizations across the city.

Meanwhile, members of Chicago DSA’s Labor Working Group have canvassed at CTA stops to talk with commuters about the importance of the unions’ demands and to inoculate them against anti-union talking points.

“The unions aren’t just bargaining for better wages or pensions; they’re bargaining for vital things that we need in our communities.” Agriesti explained. “We see this as hand-in-hand with our mission as socialists to build a better world.”

Efforts to build community support appear to be working, as indicated by the Sun-Times poll. The poll found that 49% of Chicagoans were likely to back the strike, while 38% would be opposed. A quarter of those polled are CPS parents, who overwhelmingly support the unions and would blame Mayor Lightfoot if there is a walkout.

If the work stoppage happens, the CTSSC plans to mobilize turnout on the picket lines through its email and text message list, as well as its social media accounts, which reach thousands of people. For parents, the coalition Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education has created a webpage with information on what families can do during the strike, including how to support the unions.

“Most parents don’t want a strike, we want our children to be in school, to be learning,” Henchek said. “But we know that if we’re going to have the wraparound services, the class sizes, the social justice that our children deserve, then there may need to be a strike.”

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

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

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

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

“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.

The coming Chicago teachers strike could be felt across the country

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

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

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

Monday, September 30th, 2019

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

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

Monday, September 16th, 2019

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

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

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

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.

 

 

Colorado Republican bill would jail teachers for walking out

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

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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