Public schools across Chicago opened Tuesday for the school year, but they may have to shutter their doors if the school board fails to come to an agreement with the teacher’s union.
The Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) made national headlines after submitting a 10-day strike notice last Wednesday after months of failed contact negotiations with the school board that began in November 2011. Earlier in the year the union voted in a landslide of 90% approval to take possible strike action if negotiations failed.
The Chicago Public School (CPS) district is the third largest in United States, and the strike would affect 26,000 teachers and 400,000 students.
But for a city once famous for its organized labour movements in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the first CTU strike since 1987 could reignite the labour movement in Chicago – though critics paint public school teachers as greedy in the face of burgeoning CPS deficit.
Illinois, the fifth most populous state, ranks third in numbers of unionized workers, according to the US Department of Labour. However, in many parts of America, “union” and “labour” still invoke memories of the bloated autoworkers unions of the 1970s.
But with the economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street, rhetoric surrounding the teacher’s strike seems to be one part Tea Party anger at the decline of the middle class, and one part Eugene Debbs.
At a CTU led rally of 1,500 public school teachers and supporters in downtown Chicago this Labour Day, the rhetoric was full of anger at the changing social conditions of Chicago. Fair pay for teachers was on the agenda, but so were Wall Street and the decline of the middle class.
“You are people who are not just spectators…you are people who are people who are active in the movement for social change and I truly believe because you are all here this morning, our community will be stronger, our community will be more secure,” said the opening speaker to a cheering crowd.
“If you want to provide homeland security you must provide homeland security to ensure the economic and social security of people who live in these borders and beyond.”
On paper, the issue has been a longer school year coupled with an extended school day without extra pay, which amounts to a pay cut according to the CTU. The union is demanding a pay increase of around 30%.
Audrey Olson, a CPS high school teacher, said that while she was dissatisfied with conditions surrounding the strike, she hoped it wouldn’t happen. “When we go on strike, we don’t get paid. There’s no strike pay. We can’t get unemployment. Our students lose out on instruction. We’ve got our lessons ready to go. We’re always ready to go. So going on strike is going to set the kids back, we don’t get paid. You know the city had another 17 shootings over the weekend,” Olson said.
She singled out the CPS emergency strike plan to keep open 145 schools that would continue to serve breakfast and lunch each day, though they would not offer instruction. “Mayor Emanuel has a contingency plan for $25 million that’s going to serve 130,000 students. Sounds like a lot. We have 400,000 kids. Which of those 400,000 are going to get lunch or breakfast? Who’s going to be left in an empty apartment? Who’s on the street? But that’s a typical City of Chicago response, is some half assed ridiculous plan. Like extending the school day with no additional staff.”
Public school teachers have been off contract since November 2011, and the strike would affect 26,000 teachers and 400,000 students. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is seen by the CT as a major antagonist for his budget cuts to Chicago public schools, has remained confident in the mainstream press that the city “will work through it.”
The CTU has come under fire from critics for demanding their pay raise in the face of the CPS’s $665 million deficit. The CPS announced this spring it would and it would try to keep its deficit from growing larger with $144 million in cuts to “administrative and operational spending” according to Reuters.
The CTU, however, has been met with support from other local and national unions, if not from the entire city. At the Labour Day rally, the crowd was filled with blocks from the Service Employees Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) with signs in English and Spanish, and supporters from other city and national organizations. AFSCME is also in the midst of negotiations with the city, and hope to avoid a similar pay cut.
Speakers from the SEIU, AFSCME, Chicago firefighter’s union, and the National Association of Letter Carriers all touched on the importance of middle class solidarity and the importance of the public school system.
However, for some of the teachers in attendance, the key issues seemed to be more local and beyond the simple question of fair pay.
Brandon Johnson, a middle-school teacher who is on leave to work for the CTU, said that despite the city’s growing deficit, many schools remain chronically short of funding and supplies.“It’s pretty standard when you’re teaching in a high urban, high concentration of black, brown and poor students, you have class sizes that are out of control, no libraries, no resources, no computers that work, no books that are adequate. These are the challenges, and these are humiliating circumstances in which we are expected to teach and our students are expected to learn in,” he said.
Illinois school districts receive around 2/3 of their funding from property taxes of the surrounding area. In practical terms, this means some schools can spend as much as three times more per student in operating costs depending on the neighbourhood, according to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune. This difference has held for much of the past decade.
Trevor Pinnock, who is in his eleventh year of teaching at a grammar school on the northwest side of Chicago, said classroom size remains another chronic issue. “We can’t do our job when we have almost 40 students in a classroom. And it’s just, in terms of the supplies that the kids need, and the books. Sometimes we’ll be in the middle of the year and the kids will still be sharing a book. That can’t happen,” Pinnock said.
Pinnock who was in attendance with his family, also spoke of some of the greater social forces at work behind underfunding.
“I think it’s a [question of] a lack of priority. The country has seen unprecedented wealth while poverty has increased simultaneously, so if we’re really about children and families, then our government and folks who are concerned about us, need to take a more serious look at their commitment to us.”
Mayor Emanuel, a prominent Obama supporter and former chief of staff, was another target of many of the speakers and teachers. Mack Jullion, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers spoke of his disillusionment with the mayor. “This is not what we supported when we supported him,” he told the enthusiastic crowd.
As the Democratic hub of the Midwest, tension in traditional Democratic supporters like unions could lead to problems for the party, though likely nothing serious. The strike did however, has followed Emanuel to the Democratic National Convention, where he is speaking this week.