United States: Chicago teachers push back against austerity

April 17, 2016
Chicago, April 1.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner came under fire on April 1 in a day of action by teachers and others who took to the streets to protest their austerity policies.

Revealing the bipartisan support for austerity un US politics, Emanuel is a Democrat who was Barack Obama's White House Chief of Staff during his first term while Rauner is a conservative Republican.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) staged a one-day strike and led the day's actions. The protests involved teachers, other public-sector unionists, parents and students, fast food workers, and community members.

“The action began early at schools around the city,” wrote an on-the scene reporter for Socialist Worker. “In the late morning and early afternoon, there were protests at other sites, including public university campuses facing budget cuts that could shut them down altogether.

“Later in the afternoon came a downtown rally, with an estimated 15,000 people jamming the plaza in front of the State of Illinois building and spilling into the surrounding streets.” Cars and buses honked their horns in support as they passed by.

The CTU members wore red hats, shirts, scarves and rain ponchos — creating a sea of red on the streets. Held above the crowd on sticks was a paper-mache head of Emanuel, with horns covered with dollar signs.

In 2012, the CTU fought a bitter strike against Emanuel's hand-picked school board. The union beat back concessions the board was demanding. The school board pleaded lack of funds, this in a city that has paid out half a billion dollars in recent years to families who have suffered killings and other brutalities at the hands of the police.

The CTU says the school system is “broke on purpose”. It accuses authorities of diverting public funds into private investments and refusing to meet financial obligations that instigated the crisis.

The CTU is again in a showdown contract dispute. The board has repackaged its 2012 demands for concessions and added more, including pension cuts. This is the context for the April 1 show of force. The CTU could be on a full-scale strike as early as May 16.

Broader movement

The CTU contract dispute is important. But it is also part of a broader movement against Emanuel's and Rauner's attacks.

Rauner is holding hostage any agreement on the state's budget unless the Democrat-controlled state legislature supports his “turnaround agenda” to crush public sector unions.

The striking teachers and supporters, after their early morning picket lines at Chicago's schools, fanned out to join a range of protests. One important one was at Chicago State University (CSU), a historically majority Black institution serving those students whose income is too low to attend other colleges.

CSU faculty, staff and administrators have all been served lay-off notices after the end of the current semester due to budget cuts. This means the end of a facility so important to the Black community.

Hundreds turned out for a teach-in called by the Black Youth Project–100 and a rally led by Citizen Action Illinois. Kelly Harris, a professor of African American studies at CSU, invoked Nina Simone's famous song “Mississippi Goddam”, updating it to “Illinois Goddamn.”

Other protests

At the Illinois Youth Center and Cook County Jail, an action focused on the “school-to-prison” pipeline affecting many Black youth.

For their part, the strikers and supporters at Roosevelt High School marched to a McDonald's to support low paid workers organizing through the Fight for 15, a reference to the US$15-an-hour wage campaign.

Fight for 15 activists then joined more than 1000 people at Northeastern Illinois University, also on Rauner's chopping block. Staff members were forced to take a day off each week without pay — to “solve” the state's budget crisis.

These actions culminated in a rally of 15,000 people. “Featured speakers at the rally,” reported Socialist Worker, “included CTU president Karen Lewis and Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with Irene Robinson, one of the [public school] parents who went on hunger strike last year to keep Dyett High School open; Adrianna Alverez of the Fight for 15 struggle; and Charles Preston, a Chicago State student and member of BYP-100.

“Later, the huge crowd set off on a march through the city streets, their chants echoing off the downtown buildings: 'How do you fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich!'”

Some in the media attacked the CTU for striking and supporting a wide array of issues, calling the strike illegal. In a sense it was, since state law forbids public employees from striking over any issues other than pay. In ignoring this undemocratic law, the April 1 action was political, in addition to raising the broader issues.

Democratic, militant unionism

Another state law designed to undercut teachers' rights stipulates that 75% of the union's active members must authorise any strike. The CTU membership met and surpassed that bar in a December vote with 96% authorising a strike over contract negotiations if needed.

On March 23, the CTU's representative body of delegates elected at each school, voted 486 to 124 to call the one-day strike.

This level of democracy in the CTU explains why teachers who voted against the strike nonetheless joined it after the vote was taken, feeling their opinion had been heard. This helped the united one-day strike shut down public schools across the city in a powerful show of strength.

How did the CTU get this way? A minority of teachers, including socialists, formed a caucus within the union advocating a more class struggle policy against what must be called the class collaborationist stance of the leadership.

This class collaborationist outlook characterises union leaders in the US in general. This helps explain the huge concessions unions have made to the capitalist class, especially since the Great Recession of 2008.

Many members of this caucus, as well as advancing their proposals for change within the CTU, also supported the struggles by parents and students against school closings in the city and other attacks. This is part of a national drive by the ruling class against public education.

This caucus was elected to the CTU leadership before the 2012 contract negotiations. An understanding that broader social issues were union issues has become part of the CTU's outlook.

A fight-back stance was adopted, and union democracy was the means to mobilise the latent power of united action by teachers.

This paved the way for the big 2012 strike, which was victorious against Emanuel's attacks. The April 1 strike and the other teacher-supported actions again have demonstrated union power when the ranks are mobilised.

For all these reasons, the CTU stands out in a rather dismal landscape of the present US union movement.

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