Dear Sisters and Brothers:
The September 2012 strike of 26,000-plus Chicago teachers -- organized by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) -- was undeniably one of the most significant labor struggles in decades.
What was at stake was not only the working conditions of Chicago teachers but also their job security and preservation of their union. Moreover, the teachers were fighting for the survival of public education in the face of the campaign waged by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago School Board to charterize and privatize the nation's school system -- a plan laid out by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, formerly the head of the Chicago public school system.
Under this plan, "failing schools" would be closed and turned over to private interests or made charter schools employing non-union teachers and free from state supervision.
CTU Forces Rahm Emanuel to Retreat
Throughout their one-week strike, the CTU members stood their ground and asserted their independence in relation to the bosses and the politicians. And they ultimately prevailed in wresting major concessions from Emanuel and the board of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and winning a huge political victory for all working people.
At a time when education unions across the country are being forced to accept Merit Pay (a major blow to the unions and to seniority), larger class sizes, and huge cuts in pay and working conditions, the Chicago teachers defeated the Merit Pay proposal and held on to significant gains in their contract. They even forced the school district to make numerous concessions of their own.
How was this possible?
Labor activist Bill Onasch summarized some of the main lessons of this strike. He wrote:
"While the CTU's experience cannot be exactly and immediately replicated in every union, much of what enabled them to prevail against long odds is universally relevant for worker struggles. ...
"The CTU leadership departed from the prevailing strategy of 'partnership' with the employer. They not only correctly viewed the Mayor and unelected Board of Education as adversaries, not partners; they also understood that the national ruling class sees public education as a long neglected opportunity for expanded private profit.
"At the same time, the CTU did not hesitate to expose the impact of social conditions in the Urban Core abandoned by white flight on learning. They faulted Chicago Public Schools management for their neglect of the worst schools in the poorest neighborhoods of color. ...
"The CTU also proved to be legitimately committed to promised democratic functioning. All of their strategy was discussed, modified and decided with near consensus before negotiations began. The bosses knew the union bargaining team had solid backing from the members -- crucial to any successful outcome."
Equally important, the CTU reached out to their community allies and built a powerful labor-community alliance that turned into a huge army of strike supporters. On the first day of the strike, 30,000 rallied for the teachers in the Loop.
Rahm Pushes to Close 52 Public Schools!
Despite their partial victory, the Chicago teachers understood clearly that the forces pushing for privatization of public schools would not relent in their efforts. They understood that the "budget deficit" card, plus legislation adopted by the Illinois state legislature in August 2012, would be used to fire teachers and close public schools.
Thus, they were not surprised when Rahm Emanuel announced his plan to close 52 public schools -- a plan that will put almost 50,000 students at academic and physical risk, put the jobs of thousands of teachers and other school employees in jeopardy, and lead to massive destabilization in predominantly African American neighborhoods.
Immediately, the CTU leadership called on its members and community supporters to take action in the streets. On March 27, thousands rallied and marched in opposition to the mayor's and school board's plan for mass school closings. With the support of other Chicago unions and community organizations -- including UNITE HERE Local 1, SEIU Local 1, and the Grassroots Education Movement -- the CTU members and supporters called on the city of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education to stop all school closings and stop the expansion of the charter schools to focus investment in public schools, working-class families and the city's struggling neighborhoods.
At the rally, CTU President Karen Lewis urged Chicago parents, CTU members, and all school employees to stand strong against continued attempts to sabotage education in Chicago. She stated:
"As CPS and the mayor's office wage war on our schools and neighborhoods, the union is prepared to do whatever is necessary so our voices are heard. ... We must continue to challenge the status quo and the condition of one set of schools for children who are relegated to minimum wage careers, and one set of schools for the elites who are taught how to rule the world. The playing field must be level for all. So while the mayor says there will be no further negotiation and the media thinks this is over, we must let them know, brothers and sisters, that this isn't over until you say it's over."
"It's Not Over Until You Say It's Over!"
The Chicago Teachers Union has stepped forward and said "Enough!" to the cutbacks, concessions and "shared sacrifices" that have resulted in massive layoffs, cuts in wages and benefits, and worsening working conditions.
Their fight is our fight. We urge all unions throughout the country -- joined by defenders of public education, parents, students, and community allies -- to demonstrate solidarity with the embattled Chicago teachers.
On May 18-20, the CTU will be organizing "freedom marches" across the city of Chicago. They are fighting to save their schools and their communities -- and they will be taking their voices for justice to Chicago's City Hall.
They deserve -- and need -- our visible solidarity!
We urge all labor and community activists to do one or more of the following:
- * Go to Chicago for one of the May 18-20 days of action,
- * Contact your local union affiliate and encourage them to participate,
- * Pass resolutions of support of Chicago in your unions,
- * Organize solidarity call-ins to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office (312-744-5000, or 312-744-3334) during one of the march days -- flood his office!