Letter from the US: Chicago teachers beat off attack, show way forward

Chicago teachers on strike, September 14.

Chicago's teachers have successfully fought off an assault on their union, school children and public education launched by Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and even pushed him back in some respects.

The strike and mass mobilisations of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ended on September 19 when the teachers went back to work.

The evening before, the elected House of Delegates, which represents teachers throughout the system, voted by 98% to end the strike.

The tentative settlement had been placed before the House of Delegates on September 16. But in a show of union power and democracy, the delegates voted to continue the strike for two more days. This allowed the rank and file time to consider the proposal and give feedback to the delegates before they voted on it.

A columnist in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: “If the point of going on strike is to get a better deal than you would have received without it, then the Chicago Teachers Union is already a pretty clear winner this week in its confrontation with mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board.”

Stung by such assessments that he was the loser in the strike, the enraged Emanuel went to court to seek an injunction forcing the teachers back to work. The legal basis for his attack was a state law that forbids teachers to strike over conditions in the schools, allowing action only over wages and related issues.

The judge declined to rule on the injunction temporarily, as it was clear that any such attempt would be met by huge resistance and throw the city into further turmoil.

This undemocratic law is typical of the bipartisan drive against teachers across the country.

Before running for mayor of Chicago, Emanuel was president Barack Obama’s chief of staff. As such he helped craft the administration’s “Race to the Top” federal grant program, which requires states to pass legislation attacking teacher tenure and easing the way for non-union, private charter schools.

Technically, the strike was within the law. But the teachers also went on a huge campaign to expose the deplorable conditions in most Chicago public schools, from unsafe physical conditions and bloated class sizes, to lack of libraries in 160 schools and lack of air conditioning, even though these weren't "strikable issues" under the reactionary law.

A recent poll showed overwhelming support for the teachers’ battle among parents of children in the public schools.

The Chicago Public School (CPS) board, which is unelected and appointed by the mayor, is composed of billionaires and CEOs of big corporations and their ilk.

The CPS had sought to abolish raises based on teachers’ experience and educational attainment, in a scheme it called “merit pay”. This cornerstone of Emanuel’s “reform” package is gone from the settlement. The basic pay structure is preserved.

Such “merit pay” schemes are notorious for dividing teachers and weakening solidarity.

The CTU also managed to blunt the CPS’s drive to foist teacher evaluations to be 50% based on student performance on standardised tests. The contract pushed that back to 25%, followed by an increase to 30% in the third year of the contract. This is the minimum allowed under reactionary state laws.

The CTU gained ground with new contract language that gives laid-off teachers the chance to enter the hiring pool for job openings. Emanuel had to back down from his demand for total principal authority on hiring.

Teachers who are laid off when their positions are closed can return to those posts if they are reopened within 10 months. Pay rises can no longer be cancelled because of budget shortfalls — the pretext used last year when the CPS cancelled a 4% pay increase previously agreed to.

The new contract does contain concessions by the union. It forces teachers to take part in a “wellness” health care plan in return for a freeze on health costs borne by teachers.

Many teachers feel this discriminates against those who are older or have long-term health problems, are deemed “too fat” and so forth.

The new evaluation scheme contains a “needs improvement” category that leaves teachers classified as such vulnerable to layoffs. However, midyear evaluations, used by principals to fast-track dismissals, are banned.

The biggest weakness was the union’s failure to win more on its “non-strikable” demands, such as smaller class sizes that benefit students and teachers. The CPS did agree to hire more social workers, nurses and councillors, but only when more funds become available. It did agree to hire 600 teachers for art, music and language classes, previously cut by the board.

School closures and privatisations will continue.

Chicago has historically been one of the most segregated US cities, a fact reflected in its schools, most of which are overwhelmingly Black, Brown and poor.

The city has created a parallel set of well-funded selective enrollment schools, leaving neighbourhood schools segregated and inadequately resourced.

However, all these “non-strikable” issues were raised by the CTU among parents and throughout the city in mass meetings, leafleting, and door-to-door canvassing. The teachers have placed these issues on the public agenda, in preparation for future battles.

In weighing the pros and cons, the teachers decided in a democratic discussion and vote to accept the contract. Their solidarity and demonstration of power places them in a good position to carry forward their fight for public schools.

In evaluating the outcome, it is important to keep in mind the context.

The teachers were alone in their national union, the American Federation of Teachers, in deciding to fight against the ruling class onslaught against public education. In other cities, the AFT, and the other national teachers’ union, the National Educational Association, have capitulated.

Second, they faced undemocratic labour laws.

Third, the whole union movement has failed to mount an effective fightback against the drive by the capitalists to make workers pay for the capitalist system's ongoing depression.

In this context, what the teachers accomplished is remarkable.

Militant teachers in Chicago had been fighting for many years within their union against the failures of the entrenched bureaucracy tied to the national AFT machine. An opposition in the CTU was formed, called the Pro-Active Caucus of Teachers (PACT), which won the union election in 2001.

PACT, however, showed the limits of union reform at the top. It was not able to mobilise members, and was viewed as the “outs” winning posts from the “ins” of the old guard. In 2004, PACT was narrowly defeated by the old leaders.

Ron Bartlett, a high school teacher in a Chicago suburb and a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee, wrote in Against the Current that, after PACT failed to make a comeback in 2007: “At this point the Caucus of Rank and File Educators [CORE], started by a small group of young militant teachers but including long-time union activists, some of whom had been active in PACT, met to form a new caucus that took as its goal the need to fight the privatisation agenda.”

From the beginning, CORE had a class struggle approach.

Bartlett said: “They understood the need to involve parents and community groups in this fight. The group decided to propose actions within the CTU, but not wait for the union to act ― but to begin activities at any school where there was opposition to the Board agenda.

“This ranged from speaking out at CPS hearings in support of parents' actions against school closings, opposing CPS policies, and camping out at schools threatened with closure…

“The more activities CORE engaged in, the more they attracted teachers willing to fight for the education of their students ― and the weaker the [old guard] leadership became.”

CORE also pushed organised teachers to support community struggles. Thus the base was laid for a close alliance with the broader community in a common struggle for public education.

This “social unionism” approach was in stark contrast to the hidebound policies of the union bureaucracy nationally, which is to try to preserve wages and conditions for their members only.

This has resulted in not even preserving the wages and conditions of their shrinking membership.

Class struggle unionism and social unionism was complemented by a fight for union democracy. This was not just to change some undemocratic policies, but to use union democracy to mobilise the participation of the great mass of teachers to exert their inherent power.

In 2010, CORE won the union elections against the rump of PACT and the old guard, and began preparing the ranks for the coming showdown with the Democratic Party machine.

These three principles were on display during the strike. Almost all 26,000 teachers on strike were mobilised on the picket lines and mass marches.

Union democracy was practised from the beginning, from the 98% vote to authorise a strike to the final votes ending it.

The Chicago teachers strike builds on two other expressions of working class fightback in the current depression. The first was the mass mobilisations in Wisconsin early last year against a draconian law to smash public unions.

The teachers union, along with other public workers unions, were in the forefront of that battle.

Unfortunately, when the legislature rammed through the law, Wisconsin teachers union leaders called off their strike right at the crucial moment when the mobilisations could have greatly deepened.

The contrast with the class struggle approach of the Chicago Teachers Union could not be clearer.

Then came the Occupy movement, with its message that the capitalist ruling class, the 1%, was responsible for the crisis, and which rejected their drive to make the rest of us pay for it. This struck a powerful chord among tens of millions of workers.

From Occupy, we can learn the lesson that the almost 90% of workers who are not organised are ripe to be organised. Whether this will come from within the existing union movement, like the CTU (which is projecting to organise the largely non-unionised teachers in the Chicago private schools), or through new formations outside of it, remains to be seen.

The road ahead is arduous. But the CTU has given us a path forward.

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