The following is from a Chicago member of First of May Anarchist Alliance. It is an overview of the situation and was drafted over the weekend in the lead up to the strike that has started today.
It is looking increasingly likely that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers will go on strike on Monday, for the first time in 25 years. I’m biased, as my wife is an active member of the union, but I will try to offer some perspective as an anarchist, as well as a parent of two CPS students and the spouse of a potential strike captain.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) is currently run by a classic reform caucus known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which features anumber of people with left (especially ISO and Solidarity) backgrounds. Theleadership has generally been perceived as “activist” or “militant,” apart from the predictable griping of other Trotskyists who complain of the usual ISO conservatism and loyalty to the Democratic Party. (More on that in a minute.)
The conflict between the CTU and CPS is really happening on two levels. At this point, with a strike immanent, the CTU is legally obligated to limit its strike demands (though not its full slate of negotiating positions) to questions of wages and benefits. Of course this makes it easy for the Chicago corporate media to portray them like the greedy and privileged public sector unions in Wisconsin last year. (Again, more on that soon.) But even here, the teachers are on pretty solid ground: with CPS imposing a greater than 25% expansion of work time for the average teacher (an extra hour of instruction every day, plus an additional ten days of instruction over the course of the year), the initial offer from the city was a one-time 2% raise. It was pretty obvious to everyone this side of the solidly-pro-austerity Chicago Tribune that this would be unacceptable to anyone who has a job in any line of work.
At the same time, the folks from CORE really built their base in the union around a fairly progressive (though by no means revolutionary) vision of shifting education “reform” away from the No Child Left Behind emphasis on high stakes testing and the casualization of the work force via merit-pay, etc.
If folks are familiar with the journal Rethinking Schools, that’s the politics of CORE, and thus of the current CTU leadership. On this level, then, the union is able to tell parents that they are sincerely fighting for a change in educational philosophy, which has helped build parent support for the union to a level that I don’t think anyone expected a year ago.
(I don’t have a sense of the level of student support for the teachers at this point. I imagine there is a mixed sentiment, with some viewing the teachers as abandoning them, while others blame CPS and support their teachers. Not surprisingly, there has been almost no coverage of student attitudes toward the strike in the mainstream media here.)
Obviously, an enormous amount has changed since the last CTU strike in 1987, much less since the emergence of big-city teacher strikes in the 1960s. One major change has been in the demographic composition of the union membership. In stark contrast to the classic story of the New York teachers’ strike of 1968, which pitted an overwhelmingly white teaching force against communities of color fighting for local control over the schools, Chicago now features a broadly multi-racial teaching force lined up against a largely white-led and corporate-identified school board and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
Partly as a result of this, Emmanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard (the head of CPS) have largely failed in their predictable attempt to drive a wedge between the CTU and the black community. Last fall there were several public forums on the south side, clearly targeting African-Americans to support the mayor’s drive for a longer school day. These collapsed in a minor scandal when it was revealed that many attendees had been paid to show up and pack the hall. Black anger at CPS has increased over the past several years as dozens of schools have been shut down, forcing thousands of kids to move around between schools. At the same time, CPS has deliberately targeted older (and thus higher-salaried) teachers for layoffs as part of the school closings, and a disproportionately high percentage of those newly displaced teachers have been black women.
There is also significant support for the CTU among more affluent and largely white parents on the north and northwest sides of town. I think this emerges from a combination of factors. First, no one, least of all Emmanuel and Brizard, predicted the level of resistance they’ve received to the idea of a longer school day, which was Emmanuel’s signature “reform” of the school system. (Notably, Emmanuel’s kids go to the University of Chicago Lab School, a private school that has substantially shorter hours than those advocated by their father for other people’s children.) A lot of affluent parents have resisted the longer school day because they prefer to have their kids in extracurricular after school activities that they can select according to their own preferences. The other factor here has to do with the aftermath of the Madison events of last year. Lots of well-off liberal white folks in Chicago now associate attacks on public sector unions with evil Republicans like Scott Walker. This has allowed them to sympathize with the CTU when their natural habit would be to support Emmanuel. (This demographic voted overwhelmingly for Emmanuel in the mayoral race just 18 months ago.)
Which brings us back to the Democratic Party. Whether despite or because of the election year, there has been near-total radio silence from the Obama camp on their preferred outcome to the CPS-CTU conflict. Rumors abound, but without real evidence to support them: some say Obama is furious at Rahm for driving away a previously loyal union constituency in a election year, in his home town no less, while others think Obama has given Emmanuel the green light to crush the union because it will look good to independent voters in swing states.
Whichever, it is notable that no one from Obama’s campaign showed at the CTU Labor Day Rally this past Monday. At the same time, the tenacity of the CTU leadership in the face of CPS intransigence does not match the usual tendency of reformist (and especially ISO-influenced) union leaderships to tail the Democratic Party. I’m sure most CTU members will vote for Obama in November (not that it will matter in Illinois!), but in the mean time there is real anger aimed at him by a lot of teachers for his failure to step in and personally demand that Emmanuel agree to a pro-teacher settlement.
None of this indicates to me that there is much chance of this struggle breaking out of the confines of strictly reformist union activity. In fact, precisely the opposite seems more likely to me: because the union leadership has been BOTH responsive to its rank and file in ways not seen in Chicago in over a quarter-century AND attentive to real questions of educational quality that matter to parents, it is generating real loyalty from both teachers and parents. Unfortunately, that loyalty will almost certainly mean that any compromise agreement, no matter how bad it might be for teachers or for kids, will be solidly backed by both groups.
While that might be depressing, it’s not the whole story. Things are moving incredibly fast here, and both teachers and parents across the city are getting a rapid-fire education in organizing and coalition-building that could potentially prove useful if a social struggle with more radical potential emerges within the education sector in the months or years to come. (Something like the Whittier struggle, for instance, or the currently ongoing battle over the future of a “Social Justice High School” in another predominantly Latino community, which has featured student walkouts and more than just pro forma solidarity from the CTU.)
It will be interesting to see what happens if the strike lasts longer than a day or two: will the parents turn against the teachers? Will Emmanuel dig in his heals or cave on key issues? Will the union scrap its high-minded educational reform ideas and settle for a decent pay raise? At this point, I don’t feel any ability to predict what will happen. Mostly, I’m just getting myself ready to be out on the picket line at 6:30AM on Monday with my wife and the kids.
Wish us luck!