The Chicago Teachers Union has suspended their strike after a meeting of the union House of Delegates Tuesday afternoon, where about 800 delegates voted to accept the tentative deal that union leadership had reached with the school board over the weekend.
While the full membership of about 26,000 active teachers, school nurses, counselors, social workers and other paraprofessionals still needs to approve the contract, students will be back in school on Wednesday morning after missing seven days in the second and third weeks of school.
Relations between the union and the administration had gotten increasingly ugly over the past few days after the union delegates declined to call off the strike Sunday as the administration had hoped. Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a caustic press release saying “I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union.” The union and supporters countered that they simply wanted to exercise standard democratic process in which delegates would be able to get feedback from their members before casting a vote.
The sense that this was a battle over the union’s very right to exist had intensified in the past few days, as Emanuel continued referring to a “strike of choice” and went to circuit court asking for an injunction to force teachers back to work without a contract. The injunction request alleged that the strike was illegal because it was over issues not subjecting to bargaining, and it invoked children’s health and safety. Never mind that, dangerous as Chicago streets are for students, they had been off all summer and are off on weekends…it’s hard to understand how several more days out of school could be a safety risk necessitating judicial intervention.
Regarding the mayor’s request for an injunction, union spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin said in a statement:
“The Chicago Teachers Union is striking over mandatory subjects of bargaining such as compensation, evaluation procedures and the conditions within our classrooms. If this was an illegal strike the Chicago Public Schools would have sought injunctive relief on day one. The law provides that if a strike is illegal only the labor board has jurisdiction to stop a strike. CPS has never filed any claim with the labor board that our strike is illegal.”
Statements from the administration and media coverage alluded to divisions within the union based on the activist approach and history of the union leadership, drawn from the group CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) that formed in 2007 originally as a book club reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.” Founding members were already heavily involved in their communities including through youth media activism and movements for immigrants rights and against the war. A Chicago Tribune story noted that some union leaders had published stories on “socialist websites.” Union supporters called this red-baiting, and decried the fact that an activist approach and a larger ideological framework – once standard characteristics of powerful unions – would be attacked as unethical or unsavory.
As the tension intensified and teachers continued to man picket lines, supporters of the union stepped up their actions Monday and Tuesday. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a PAC that supported Wisconsin public union members, aired a commercial saying “Thank you unions” on cable and broadcast TV and online. On Friday Boston union teachers took out a full page ad in the Chicago Sun-Times supporting the Chicago union, after the mayor erroneously said that Boston teachers had chosen to stay in the classroom while negotiating their contract. (They were not allowed to strike over the issues being debated, and many said they would have if they could have.)
On Tuesday morning, more than 1,000 parents and other community members delivered post cards to Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. CPS security initially refused to accept the post cards, which included a vow to continue fighting for equitable education even after the strike.
On Tuesday afternoon the group Warehouse Workers for Justice, which had just walked off the job on Saturday to protest retaliation and wage theft at Wal-Mart warehouses, marched from a south side vocational high school to a Wal-Mart in solidarity with the teachers. They highlighted the Walton Family Foundation’s support of national “school reform” groups including Stand for Children that have played a direct role in the battle against the Chicago Teachers Union.
The contract deal as described in a press release from the union over the weekend includes significant gains on a number of important fronts, as compared to the board’s original proposals. On the key issue of job security for teachers laid off at schools that are closed or “turned around” because of low test scores, the union did not gain full “recall rights” but did improve teachers’ prospects, with a guarantee that laid off teachers have priority for any openings at their schools and that half of new hires must be laid off union teachers.
The union was not allowed to bargain over the hot button issue of regular public schools being closed and replaced with privately-run charter schools, so job security for teachers laid off from such schools became a proxy for this national controversy. In its weekend statement the union vowed to continue fighting against school closings and reiterated its demands for a moratorium on closings.
On the other major issue of teacher evaluation, the school board backed off on its move to make about half a teacher’s evaluation based on standardized test scores of students, run through algorithms meant to measure “student growth.” Under the deal 30 percent of the evaluation is based on “student growth” – the amount mandated by a state law – and teachers gained additional protections including the ability to appeal an evaluation.
The deal also included an “anti-bullying” provision mandating that administrators and principals not harass teachers; and a guarantee that teachers will have books on the first day of class. The deal also gets rid of the different tracks that had some schools starting in mid-August; now all union members will be on the same schedule. And it promises the hiring of 512 new “special” teachers in topics like art, music, world languages and physical education.
Shortly after the union vote, Mayor Emanuel announced he would make a brief statement at Walter Payton College Prep just north of downtown. It’s likely the school was chosen for convenience, not far from City Hall. But it also could be seen as highlighting the reasons teachers fought so hard against standardized testing and school closings. Walter Payton is a beautiful facility with ample resources, a far cry from the dilapidated south and west side schools where teachers often go weeks into the school year without even receiving their text books. The union was basically saying student and teacher performance at such crumbling institutions shouldn’t be judged by the same metric as at places like Walter Payton...and rather than closing struggling public schools, the district should use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and other funds to make all public schools so attractive.
Ultimately the union clearly did not get everything it wanted out of the negotiations, but it did make significant gains and exercised its legally protected right to strike and to come to a democratic decision on its own terms – a victory in its own right, as public sector unions are under attack nationwide. While students may have had a week without standard lessons, it’s clear that Chicagoans – including those in the highest city offices – got a schooling in labor relations and the power that unions can still have even in this day and age.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and journalism instructor. She worked through 2009 as a staff writer for The Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis."