Can Chicago Teachers Win Again?

by Robert Bartlett

January 4, 2016

Three years ago Chicago teachers defied the corporate-led attack on public education and went on a successful strike, widely supported by the public and parents, to support public education in all neighborhoods of the city. The context of that fight was the takeover of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) leadership by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), with their goal of fighting the privatization of public schools and defunding of neighborhood schools through building alliances with parents and community organizations and mobilizing the union membership.

Chicago teachers march during the 2012 strike.

The first years of the CORE leadership were preparation for a showdown with the city and a series of escalating actions by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Rahm Emanuel designed to weaken the CTU. The assault started by passing legislation on the state level backed by astroturf “education reform groups” like the misnamed Stand for Children, designed to prevent the CTU from striking by raising the threshold of a strike vote from a majority of those members voting to 75% of the entire membership. Later the appointed school board sought to ramrod the proposal for a longer school day, asking individual schools to circumvent the union contract and extend their school day in exchange for a pittance. These attacks served to mobilize the membership, provided a way to understand the intent behind the changes that CPS demanded, and rallied majority support in the city for the CTU, which was higher among parents than any other segment of the population.

The strike itself shocked the leaders of the city, both by the depth of support for CTU within the city and by the visible strength the union demonstrated daily by tens of thousands of members who first picketed at their local schools and then demonstrated in downtown Chicago–on several occasions bringing the downtown Loop to a standstill. As then CEO of CPS Jean-Claude Brizard commented after the strike, “We severely underestimated the ability of the Chicago Teachers’ Union to lead a massive grassroots campaign against our administration. It’s a lesson for all of us in the reform community.”

The Never-ending Fight

A 2012 strike settlement was reached, stopping the most egregious proposals of CPS without ending the campaign to privatize education through closing public schools and opening charters. Since the end of the strike CPS has closed over 50 public schools in the largest such action in U.S. history, opened new campuses of charter schools, often in the same neighborhood where schools were closed, and changed budgeting within CPS to what is described as a “per pupil” formula. This has decreased the funding available for individual schools by up to millions of dollars, leading to painful choices such as cutting classroom teachers, support staff, librarians, special education paraprofessionals, or social workers.

These assaults didn’t go unchallenged; in particular the fight to stop school closings achieved a mass level with thousands attending hearings to oppose closing their neighborhood school. Despite really widespread opposition to these actions, the CPS board voted in lockstep to approve them. The overall effect has been to weaken neighborhood schools already suffering from the effects of poverty, and set them up for eventual closing as charters open in the neighborhoods and continue to draw students out of the weakened schools.

A study done by the Institute on Metro­politan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School found that charter schools in Chicago increased racial segregation in Chicago and had worse outcomes in reading, math and graduation rates than traditional public schools. This article isn’t designed to analyze the relative effectiveness of charter school education–but the intent of charter proliferation is clearly to weaken public education and teacher unions, and to drive down wages, as well as working and learning conditions.

Since the strike there have been three major areas where the CTU and its community allies have engaged. First was the school closing fight; second is the fight to stop further charter school expansion and the related drive to organize charter school teachers into a union; and third has been electoral struggles both during the Chicago mayoral and aldermanic elections and the Illinois governor’s race.

The school closing fight is indicative of the determination of CPS to both punish the CTU and to continue to weaken the union by demoralizing teachers displaced by the closings. Since 2002, 142 schools have been closed. Over 1,000 teachers were displaced when 50 schools closed in 2012, primarily on the Black south and west sides as well as adjacent Hispanic neighborhoods. With the new per pupil funding formula, it is harder for principals to take on the higher salaries of veteran teachers, leading to a continuing push-out of veteran Black teachers whose percentage in Chicago has fallen from 45% in 2000 to 24% today.

A second message is the intransigence of the board and the city. Despite thousands of parents and teachers testifying at closing hearings and three separate three-day marches through the affected West and South Side neighborhoods, and a recommendation by hearing officers to remove 11 schools from the list, the Board of Education voted to approve the 50 school closings and five turnarounds (firing and replacing the entire staff), sparing only five schools.

The Fight to Save Dyett High

The struggle to reopen Dyett High School (named for a legendary educator of generations of Chicago Black musicians) in the Bronzeville neighborhood is a case in point of racism, privatization, gentrification, and corporate school reform.

In 2000 the city of Chicago released its “Plan for Transformation” to tear down public housing in Bronzeville, a historic Black Chicago community. Under that Plan, 20 of 22 neighborhood schools would be shut. Led by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), the community fought to oppose closing after closing of Bronzeville neighoborhood schools. To date CPS has shut down 17 schools in the historic community. After another hardfought flight, in 2012 the CPS Board of Education voted to phase out Dyett High School. It closed in June 2015.

In most cases of schools being closed in Chicago, students and teachers try to move on and the struggle ends, but the leaders of the fight to save Dyett have a long history of fighting city and CPS policies that target students and communities of color. Community leaders immediately formed a new “Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett High School.” Before the school closed, members of the Coalition enlisted the help of educators from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Social Justice High School, the CTU, Teachers for Social Justice, the Chicago Botanical Garden, and the DuSable Museum of African American History, who worked for several years to prepare a plan for a high school that would embody the goals the community wanted from CPS.

The revitalized Dyett High School would be an open enrollment school, not one that screens students through an entrance exam. It would have a curriculum based on global studies and the growing field of green technology to equip students with skills to either succeed in college or to be prepared for jobs that provide a living wage. What resulted was a balanced proposal to reopen Dyett as a green technology-focused school.

This year, due to the Coalition’s constant pressure, the Board solicited proposals to reopen the school, but all indications were that a charter school with connections to the Mayor would be given the building. The Board continued to delay any decision until August 17, when 12 community members started a hunger strike that was to last 34 days. Only after the Mayor was chased off the stage at one of his city budget hearings did the Board budge and announce that Dyett would be reopened as an open enrollment public school. This was a real victory to the neighborhood, even though CPS refused to negotiate on the selection of a principal and chose an arts focus for the school–contrary to the demands of the Coalition to Save Dyett.

Hunger strikers at Dyett High School.

In Chicago, people have to starve themselves to get any concessions in the school system. As Jeanette Taylor-Ramann, a hunger striker and KOCO member said, “Our voice has been ignored. It’s just going to continuously be a fight.”

Paternalism, Gentrification, Resistance

The Coalition represents the resentment and anger at the paternalism, racism, and privatization strategy of CPS and the city of Chicago toward the Black community. Policies initiated through programs like Renaissance 2010, which proposed to eliminate “low performing schools” rather than invest in the necessary social supports to allow schools in the Black community to succeed, and a redevelopment plan that eliminated thousands of units of public high rise housing on the South Side and displaced the families who lived there, were widely seen as moves to displace African Americans from an area slated for gentrification. Beyond advocacy for quality neighborhood schools, the Dyett fight represents a demand to control the destiny of historically Black and Brown neighborhoods.

Despite increasingly powerful community mobilizations against charter school expansion, today there are 134 charter schools in Chicago. Even in neighborhoods like the southwest side where the leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, Mike Madigan, has his base and has opposed the opening of a charter school, it is very likely that the Seventeenth Street campus of the Noble Street network will be approved in late October by the Chicago Board of Education. Noble Street famously has a campus named for current millionaire Republican governor Rauner, who is on a campaign to “curb union power” and slash social services in Illinois. Frank Clark, the newly named president of the Board of Education, has, like Rauner, also bought himself naming rights to a Noble charter school on the West Side.

A development that weakened the charter movement is the growth of the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-affiliated charter school union. It has succeeded in organizing the corrupt but politically connected United Neighborhood Organization schools, as well as six smaller networks, and recently organized three schools on the West and South sides.

The electoral arena is the other big initiative that the CTU has entered along with union allies and community groups. During the summer of 2014, CTU president Karen Lewis set up an exploratory campaign for mayor, until she was diagnosed with cancer. She has recently announced that her doctors have declared that the tumor is undetectable and she plans to run for re-election as CTU president. In her place the CTU along with the SEIU Health Care Illinois Indiana (HCII) backed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia against Rahm Emanuel. His campaign didn’t have the resonance that Karen’s would have had, but it marked a growing involvement of the CTU in the electoral arena.

Along with supporting Garcia for mayor, eight CTU members ran in aldermanic races. Sue Sadlowski-Garza (daughter of former steelworker presidential candidate Ed Sadlowski) won a tight race against a multiple-term incumbent on the South Side. Two other members lost narrow races: Tara Stamps lost in a runoff in a West Side ward; Tim Meegan missed a runoff against Deb Mell, daughter of a powerhouse Chicago alderman.

CTU also intervened in other aldermanic races, supporting the Progressive Caucus opponents of Rahm as well as challengers who unseated several of Rahm’s supporters. These campaigns showed how teachers have been politicized and emboldened to challenge the current city council. They also reflect the deeply felt need to challenge Rahm, who symbolizes all they have fought against.

Another campaign that CTU has taken on after prodding by its community allies is the attempt to change Chicago’s appointed school board to an elected representative school board. Chicago was given mayoral control of the schools in 1995 by the state legislature, and both Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have fiercely opposed returning it to the voters.

Prior to the last election the CTU and Grassroots Illinois Action (GIA), an alliance of community and labor organizations, gathered 65,000 signatures to place an advisory referendum on the ballot in 37 of 50 wards for the 2015 election. It passed in all the wards with yes votes between 87% and 93%. A bill to allow an elected representative school board has been introduced in Springfield with 55 sponsors, but it will take a serious and broad effort to get it passed in the stalemated Illinois legislature.

Electoral Actions

The CTU also fought against Bruce Rauner in the governor’s race, supporting incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn despite the fact that his running mate was the despised Paul Vallas, a former head of CPS who initiated the post-Katrina all-charter school conversion of New Orleans’ schools, as well as school privatization in Philadelphia. This was a less enthusiastically embraced campaign, as the state Democratic establishment is viewed at best as a decided lesser evil in comparison to Rauner.

All of these actions took place as the CTU, SEIU HCII, community group Action Now, GIA (the electoral arm of the Grassroots Collaborative, a union-labor coalition) and other community organizations took the decision to form a political organization, United Working Families. Despite being courted by the Working Families party in New York, this was an independent effort. United Working Famlies is not an independent political organization in the classic sense of being to the left of the Democratic Party and hostile to it, but an organization born of the frustrations of being mistreated and taken for granted. It endorsed primarily Democratic Party affiliated candidates in Chicago, but hasn’t yet taken the step of running its own independent candidates.

Still a creation of the organizations that initiated it, if UWF is to develop more political independence it needs to build networks of supporters throughout Chicago, perhaps on the basis of those aldermanic campaigns that were most successful. The effect of the 2015 campaigns was to elect 11 of 50 aldermen, a larger progressive bloc on the city council but well short of having any chance to drive political decisions and still subject to pressure by the Mayor.

To summarize, the CTU is still politically isolated within the Chicago labor movement, which overwhelmingly supported Rahm, but there have been movements by some local unions to join the United Working Families with CTU and SEIU HCII.

The City and State Financial Crisis

Although the term “crisis” is overused to describe the financial condition of Chicago and the State of Illinois, there really is a lack of revenue to pay all the costs of the school system and local and state governments. A year ago CPS pulled an accounting trick of using 15 months of projected revenue to cover their 12-month budget. That was primarily done to help Rahm in his re-election bid, but the bill has come due this year.

Teacher and other union workers’ pension costs are consistently identified by politicians and the corporate media as the source of the financial crisis. In 1995 Illinois made Chicago responsible for maintaining a 95% funding ratio for the Chicago Teacher Pension Fund (CTPF). At that time the CTPF was close to 100% funded. Today it is 58% funded. Chicago paid nothing into the teachers’ pension fund for ten years during that interval. The series of pension “holidays” was used to cover growing deficits in the city and school budgets. For each of three years starting in 2010, $400 million in pension payments were likewise skipped. With a $630 million payment due, courts have affirmed that the city must make that payment. In August Rahm’s Board of Ed passed a budget that has a $500 million hole that he is asking the State of Illinois to pick up.

Bruce Rauner.

There are three possible solutions to this self-inflicted crisis. The first is to gut the pension systems through reducing payments to current and future pensioners. This has been attempted on a statewide level when the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a pension reform bill cutting cost of living adjustments, increasing the age of retirement, and increasing the amount that employees are required to pay. Illinois has a clause in the State constitution stating that pension benefits cannot be reduced. The state took the view that the crisis superseded the constitutional guarantee, but the State Supreme court ruled to uphold the inviolability of pensions throughout the state, invalidating the “pension reform” law.

Rightwing governor Rauner seems to be following a strategy of attempting to force bankruptcy on the state and municipalities like Chicago, allowing them to void labor contracts and abrogate pension obligations. Given that the attempt to reduce pension benefits legally seems blocked, two other options remain.

In current contract bargaining CPS has demanded that the 7% pension payment pickup negotiated more than 35 years ago, in lieu of a pay raise, be paid by teachers. This would mean a 7% pay cut for Chicago teachers and staff. Karen Lewis has declared this a “strike worthy” issue. Even an unlikely capitulation of the CTU on this issue wouldn’t cover the budget hole, and a series of massive layoffs and drastic increases in class size will result when the state refuses to contribute toward Chicago’s pension costs. This would mortally wound the education of students in Chicago and in other parts of the state if the Governor continues to block any attempt to raise revenues through taxes.

Make the Wealthy Pay!

The above options are based on the principle of making working class people and communities pay for the crisis. The final alternative is to force the wealthy to pay. Education in Illinois is primarily funded through local property taxes, and Illinois has a flat 3.75% income tax, after the previous raise to 5% was allowed to expire last year. During the past period when tax rates have been cut across the country, cities and states have resorted to borrowing money to pay the bills (along with stealing pension payments). Those interest payments are always made.

Last summer in Illinois, when revenues declined due to the income tax cut, payments by the state comptroller (appointed by Rauner) to people who care for children and the disabled were delayed or just skipped. When the comptroller was taken to court and compelled by the judge to provide records of who got paid, it became public that all the interest fees to banks had been made while social service providers were at the end of the line.

Chicago has engaged in a series of dubious borrowing schemes, which CTU has campaigned against, known as “toxic interest rate swaps.” The Roosevelt Institute estimates that the city has paid $533.6 million in fees through 2014 with potential termination fees of another $257.4 million due if the credit rating of the city drops further. CPS paid $237 million through 2014 and may be on the hook for another $212 million in termination fees. These shady arrangements drain public finances and are always paid, regardless of the social cost.

Money is available. What’s necessary is to reframe the discussion on revenue away from the choice between cutting services and raising taxes on the 99%, toward alternative ways to raise revenue through vehicles like a millionaires tax, a financial transaction tax, closing corporate tax loopholes and stopping the extortionate payments that cities make to attract business. CTU has made headway in its campaign against Tax Increment Finance zones (TIFs) and the discourse has shifted; today mainstream newspapers like the Sun-Times call TIF’s political slush funds. Saqib Bhatti has written eloquently on these issues, which need to be taken up by the labor movement if we are to turn the narrative around.

Negotiations and Potential Strike

The 2012-2015 contract expired June 30th of this year. Negotiations have gone on for months and have demonstrated the lack of stability within CPS. Barbara Byrd Bennett, the superintendent, was forced to resign after it was revealed that she had engineered a $20 million no-bid contract for principal training to a company she had worked for. She has been indicted for taking kickbacks and has indicated she will plead guilty to the federal charges. At the time the CPS board unanimously approved her proposal.

Over the summer CPS and CTU negotiated toward a possible one-year deal. Understanding that there really are financial constraints on the city, CTU was apparently willing to take a one-year contract without pay raises if some changes to the last contract were made, especially on the issue of the teacher evaluation system. Other non-monetary changes that would improve education, like providing more support systems in the schools, were also presented.

The Board opened with a proposal to force the teachers to make the 7% pension payment, but withdrew that proposal after a 5,000 strong demonstration of teachers. At one point they even asked the teachers’ pension fund to lend the Board $500 million to fill the hole in their budget. When that was refused and Claypool took over negotiations, CPS announced they were no longer interested in a one year deal. The city also put the 7% pension concession back on the table.

At this point in negotiations, mediation has been invoked and will continue to either an impasse or an agreement. A timeline for a possible strike is still lengthy and the soonest it could occur would likely be January.

The dynamics of the current war of maneuver are quite different from 2012, when the city elites were convinced that they could steamroll over the CTU if the union refused to back down. They believed that the strike requirements (the 75% rule) would hamstring the union, that union solidarity had been neutralized with the support of the building trades for Rahm, and that public opinion could be molded against the CTU.

The CTU was able to deftly counter the various attacks and use them to build the union’s contract campaign, and controlled the timeline to a strike which culminated at the beginning of the school year. Today CPS has fewer illusions about the ability of the CTU to organize, but they also have a financial crisis that they intend to use to force a concessionary contract. CPS has also had three years to inflict school closings and layoffs against teachers in an attempt to deflate the confidence gained in the last strike.

CTU has continued to build ties to the community, and tellingly during the mayor’s race between Rahm and Garcia, in public polling on whom they trust most on education CTU still has majority support over Rahm. That public support has stayed constant since the strike. Mock strike votes have been strong so it appears that the 75% pro-strike vote hurdle can again be cleared.

Supporters of public education must have no illusions as well. Despite the growth of social justice unionism in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and St Paul, so notably modeled by the CTU, the struggle to stop the “education reform” movement is still a difficult one. Our political foes are working to undermine public education by starving it of money while they continue to attack public sector unionism with the hope of destroying it. This is not a struggle that can be won without building on the gains of the last fight and reaching out to form alliances with broader sectors in society.

The lessons of the last strike continue to inspire people to build alliances, educate themselves, and oppose the corporate power that we confront. Can the Chicago teachers win again? To win, the goals of the 2015 contract campaign need to include the following:

  1. That the union remains united in continuing to build a broader alliance with parents, students, community members and other unions to fight for resources that can improve education and the lives of all residents of the city, particularly the most disenfranchised and impoverished.
  2. That the money to fund the schools and to protect and ultimately expand social services throughout the city must come from the rich through progressive taxation and the ending of predatory lending practices of national banking institutions like Bank of America and their toxic interest rate swaps. The needs of the people must supersede those of financial institutions.
  3. That the union must continue to be the best advocate for the needs of students and parents, continue to educate the public on the best pedagogical practice in schools and expose the ruinous policies of CPS and Rahm that threaten the stability of the school system and education of all students.

If these goals remain at the center of the contract campaign, progress can be made in shifting the discussion from where cuts need to be made to how teachers, parents and students can continue their fight for a quality public education system. That would be a victory that could pay far greater dividends than any pay raise.

Postscript: In December, of the 25,000 eligible CTU members, 88% voted to authorize a strike if necessary. The union and the district now move to the next legally-mandated step, “fact finding.”

Rob Bartlett is a teacher in the Chicago area. This article appeared in the November-December issue of Against the Current.