The Chicago Teachers Union Strike Viewed From the Local Level

Sep 10, 2012Mike Konczal

As of 10 p.m. last night, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike. Here is a webpage for why they are striking, complete with the one-page explanation and the 46-page one. Here's PCCC's summary. Here's a local teacher explaining why he is on strike.

As Bill Barclay at Dissent Magazine noted, there was a special bill passed last year that required 75 percent of teachers to vote -- with absentees counted as no votes! -- to strike. Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that “the unions cannot strike in Chicago" because that requirement, only required of teachers, was so restrictive. Turns out that this strike got 90 percent of teachers (and 98 percent if you exclude the absentees).

I reached out to two Chicago journalists and writers - Yana Kunichoff and Micah Uetricht - who are covering the situation locally to get their on-the-ground perspectives. A lightly edited transcript of the interview with each follows. I hope to have more coverage of this very important event in the days to follow.

Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.

Yana Kunichoff: My name is Yana Kunichoff. I'm a journalist for Truthout, which is a progressive online news magazine. I've written for a lot of independent media, where my focus has been immigration, investigative issues, and social justice activism. I've been living in Chicago for four years now.
 
Why is a strike happening?
 
YK: There are several layers to why this strike is happening. The shallowest, headline news one is because the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were not able to agree to a contract. A deeper reason is because this is one of the first times that an education public sector union has resisted and pushed back against the privatization and changes that have been happening in the education sector.
 
Looking back at bills passed last year and before, they all narrowed what the teachers' union is allowed to strike over. On paper, the biggest questions are on merit pay and seniority rights. But there are all these other points. Rahm Emanuel said in his press conference after the strike was declared that the two points under debate "are not financial." The two big issues under debate, from Emanuel's point of view, are teacher evaluation and principals having the full ability to hire and fire teachers.
 
What's it like for Democrats in Chicago?
 
YK: I don't know how much I can speak to the battle in the Democratic Party. There's an interesting contradiction that exists in Chicago. If you are a liberal in Chicago you support Obama, but at the same time there's a possibility you support the union. I know people supporting the campaign that support the teachers' union, even though someone associated with the administration is trying to smash it.
 
How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?
 
YK: Chicago is a pretty divided city, with neighborhoods divided by class. I spent today riding my bike around Latino, working-class neighborhoods -- Pilsen, Little Village, and North and South Lawndale. These are areas that aren't doing well in this economy.
 
I'm seeing a lot of cars honking their horns, and police running their siren while they go by a school picket. The people that have to deal with the daily reality of school cutbacks, or mental health clinic shutdowns, or how'll they get home in winter with less public transit, the people who deal with austerity budgets, are in support of the teachers' strike.
 
Chicago is becoming increasingly gentrified, though, with more people who don't rely so much on public services. I'm not sure what they think of the strikes yet.
 
Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?
 
YK: The charter system is something that started in Chicago but has since been brought national. These kinds of policies that work against teachers aren't going to stay contained to one city. This trend will continue into other cities and states, especially where unions are weak. So this is where the fight is happening. When you are here on the ground, it feels like a strong line of opposition. Opposition to policies that aren't just national but international - think of places like Greece and the more general fights against austerity happening across Europe here.
The national coverage will watch the specific contract terms, though they'll miss that 10 years from now, the specific, narrow terms will matter less than whether or not a union in an American city will have been successful in pushing back in this way. This is a fight over public resources, public jobs, and the idea of a public that isn't discussed by national media as if it exists. Will there be public schools as we understand them in 10 years?
 
I also spoke with Michah Uetricht separately.
 
Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.
 
Micah Uetricht: I'm Micah Uetricht, and I'm an organizer for a group called Arise Chicago as well as a freelance writer. I've been covering the teachers' strike in Chicago from the ground.
 
What is the core of this strike about?
 
MU: Last night, at the conference announcing whether or not the teachers were going to go on strike, several reporters asked CTU President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey about what the core issues were. Both repeatedly emphasized that there weren't one or two core issues but it was instead about the total package. The package included wages, compensation, and benefits, but also the vision of what school reform looks like. CTU started talking about school reform that actually makes schools work for kids.
 
So there are traditional things that unions go on strike for, like wages and benefits, but also the bigger picture vision of what school reform is going to look like.
 
What's the energy like covering this strike from the streets in Chicago?
 
MU: I've been around a lot of strikes and labor actions, but this is totally like nothing I've seen before. I'm about five miles north of Chicago, and I've been on my bike going from actions to picket lines. Every public school I passed had crowds of 40, 50, 60 teachers. The energy is incredible. People were up at 5 in the morning to picket at their school, and then move to phone bank.  It's a big feat of organizing that CTU has pulled off.
 
How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?
 
MU: The community support piece of the strike has also been incredible as far as I've seen. There's a lot of support from parents, community members and others. There's a group called Parents for Teachers that has been active, and a very vibrant Chicago Teacher Solidarity Campaign. Both have done an amazing job organizing before and during the strike.  People beyond the usual suspects are getting involved in this fight.
 
The city has worked really hard to try and divide parents against teachers, painting teachers as overpaid and greedy and harming students. So I was expecting to see some hostility from people on the streets, but all morning long I saw no stories of negativity or hostility. I'm looking for signs that average Chicagoans are annoyed or angry, but I haven't seen any yet. People I've talked to haven't seen any yet either.
 
Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?
 
MU: CTU is very vocal in saying that the Democratic Party in Chicago and Rahm Emanuel are not serving their interests. In Chicago the Democratic Party is the major party, and they are pushing this austerity agenda, and so a lot of the future of whether or not unions are afraid of calling out Democrats will be determined here.
 
This is a fight over public sector workers, and we've seen that a lot over the past several years. We saw it in Wisconsin under Governor Walker, for instance. In that fight, the labor movement and the left in general made some serious missteps, and suffered a pretty crushing defeat with the law and the loss of the recall.
 
In Chicago, I haven't seen anyone say this explicitly, but my sense is that they learned from that fight that you have to be in the streets to win these fights. The CTU is incredibly well organized, especially down at the rank-and-file level. That shows when you are wandering around Chicago today, where 40 or 50 people are on every line and more in the streets. The recent laws that push against public sector unions have forced them to organize the entire organization, keeping their membership involved the whole way, and it is paying off today.
 

Note: This post has had slight edits of the transcript for clarification (4:24pm ET, 9/10/12).

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