The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike is, first and foremost, a direct result of Chicago Public Schools’ failure to compromise on basic issues related to wages, class size, and job security. Both sides have been at the bargaining table since November 2011, and CPS—emboldened by the arrival of the staunchly anti-union Mayor Rahm Emanuel—has ignored teachers’ demands and sought to undermine the power of the union. It is the reluctance of CPS to budge on those three core issues that has led to the current situation. Strikes of this magnitude are rare in the contemporary American political landscape, and the teachers’ willingness to contemplate such bold action speaks to the urgency of the situation.
The impending strike in Chicago could have ramifications that extend beyond the nation’s third-largest school district.
First off, it is significant that a teachers’ union is going on the offensive. Public-sector unions have been attacked by state governments across the country and incessantly demonized by the media. Even among those unfairly battered union members, school teachers are perhaps the most vilified. From New Orleans to Washington, D.C., elected officials and allies of the corporate-backed and “education reform” movement have pointed their fingers at teachers unions for the nation’s poorly performing education system. Members are lazy and greedy, we’re told, concerned only with guarding their “fat cat” salaries and operating without regard for the interests of students or parents.
But the Chicago Teachers’ Union emphatically betrays all the tired stereotypes about unionized public school teachers. In this case, it’s plainly the union—not the school board—that has the most progressive and equitable vision of education for the city. The CTU wants a more diverse curriculum, a decrease in class sizes (already among the highest in the state), and a system of pay not based solely on test scores. The alternative vision, endorsed by the “education reformers,” would have teachers working in overcrowded classrooms and teaching fewer subjects for less pay. In lashing out against the corporate education interests, Chicago teachers are putting their reputations and livelihoods on the line, trying to win a contract that parents, teachers, and students all deserve.
If the teachers win a fair contract before the strike notice expires or achieve one after resorting to a strike, that would represent a major blow to the “education reform” movement. It could give anti-union reformers in urban areas pause before taking action. What’s more likely, though, is that it would embolden teachers’ unions to take the offensive and fight back against the advocates of corporatized schooling. Two radically different visions of the future of American education are facing off in Chicago, and for the first time in a long while the teachers seem to be in control.
It is also significant that this labor showdown comes against a Democratic mayor. The once-cozy relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party has soured in recent years, with the Party typically paying little beyond lip service to unions, and much of the leadership throwing its weight behind the “education reform” movement and its big money backers. This tension was brilliantly captured at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC—a right-to-work state, no less—in which the DNC organized a screening of a film that seemed to endorse the charter school movement. Even more tellingly, union-busting Mayor Emanuel himself was given a primetime speaking slot.
Emanuel is the corporate Democratic hack par excellence, the kind of guy who can open up the city coffers to host a costly NATO summit, and at the same time, close mental health clinics in poor neighborhoods and refuse to grant public school teachers a modest pay increase. Like a large chunk of the Democratic Party, Emanuel is no ally of working people. If the CTU were to successfully take him on, it could send a resounding message: corporate Democrats don’t have a monopoly on the support of organized labor. It might even remind us of a once commonly accepted political reality—that unions can harness political power themselves.