Chicago - There was palpable excitement in the air as teachers in red union T-shirts streamed into the formidable stone-and-brick structure that is Chicago's Lane Tech College Prep High School on the evening of Aug. 22.
Inside, delegates from schools across the city would vote later that night to give union president Karen Lewis the authority to give the 10 days notice required for a strike. The majority of schools start the day after Labor Day, Sept. 4, so a first-day strike would require notice almost immediately.
An advance battle has already begun at the district’s “Track E” institutions, which are back in session despite a sweltering heat wave and a lack of air conditioning in many classrooms. This week the union has been printing up strike posters in preparation and holding informational pickets at the Track E schools.
Meanwhile, district administrators distributed a memo to principals asking them to report union activity such as work slowdowns, “sick outs” and “other job actions that undermine supervisory authority and deleteriously affect the mission and goals of the Chicago public school system.” On Aug. 22 the Board of Education voted to authorize spending $25 million on “student safety” and student meals in case of a strike, with programming offered at non-school locations such as libraries and churches.
The fight over a longer school day for Chicago students has largely been resolved. To lengthen the school day without requiring teachers to work longer hours, the district will rehire teachers who had previously been laid off. But contract negotiations are still not going well, according to the union, with the two sides at loggerheads over issues such as salary, class size and teacher evaluation by student performance.
“This has been really hard, because none of us want to go out” on strike, says bargaining team member Susan Hickey, a clinician.
Xian Barrett, who teaches law and Chicago history at Gage Park High School in a rough neighborhood on the city’s South Side, says, “From day-to-day working with kids, I hope there’s not a strike.”
But he sees the struggle in a bigger context. “In terms of caring about these students’ long term futures, and the future of their kids and their kids’ kids, I think a strike is a necessary step in taking the schools back.”
Like many teachers, Barrett sees the fight over contract issues as part of a larger battle over the whole shape of public education in Chicago, including whose voices are heard and whose interests are served. In Chicago, as in many cities, union teachers and many parents are speaking out against the growth of non-union charter schools, the evaluation of teachers based largely on student performance on standardized tests and the closing of “under-performing” neighborhood schools. Union leaders and progressive education experts say that the Chicago school system has become more corporate and top-down and less responsive to teacher and parent concerns ever since 1995, when the mayor’s office was given control of the system.
Barrett was a founding member of the progressive group CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) that won leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union in a hotly contested 2010 election. Since then the union has pushed back hard against city plans to close schools and increase the number of charters.
According to Barrett and many other teachers, tensions intensified after Emanuel took office in May 2011.
“He is ridiculous,” said Jeanine Trize, who has worked as a teacher’s aide in the schools for 22 years. “How can you come into a system you know nothing about and without working with the teachers and students just start changing things? We don’t have money to put our kids in private school like he does. We should be the ones deciding what happens in the public schools, not him.”
Barrett grew up around the labor movement. His mother was a National Education Association organizing director in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and his father is a labor historian. He got his first taste of teaching in the JET program in Japan, where he taught English and human rights. He started at the Chicago public schools in 2006 and became quickly disillusioned with the union leadership. When other young progressive teachers invited him to participate in what would become the founding meeting of CORE--“just 10 people sitting around a small table, where we chose the name and everything"--he was excited that “I had found a cool group of troublemakers who could help offer something new to students.”
In 2009 he was chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education; in 2010 he was fired by the Chicago schools. He says the principal told him it was because his students were skipping class–of their own volition–to attend Board of Education meetings about planned school closings. So Barrett turned his energies to working for the union.
Barrett was one of the last to believe that CORE taking leadership of the union was a possible or a legitimate goal. But as CORE members became increasingly vocal in union business, the group rapidly gained popularity and converts. Their victory in the 2010 union elections was seen as a sign that teachers were hungry for leadership more willing to stand up to the city administration and the Board of Education. Now, they are possibly on the cusp of the union’s first strike in a quarter century, with nearly 90 percent of union members voting in June to authorize one.
“I was just in Europe–in Belgium and England–and people were talking about this, it’s international news,” said special education teacher Sarah Chambers outside the delegates meeting. “I was also in New York, and lots of teachers were talking about it. And in Puerto Rico. They say if we go on strike, they will be here to support us.”
After about two hours, teachers started walking out of Lane Tech into the packed parking lot. They seemed energized and determined. When Lewis appeared toward the tail end of the crowd, teachers clustered around her and cheered.
The delegates had voted to grant her the authority to give 10-day notice for a strike. Whether she will do so in coming days remains to be seen, depending how contract negotiations go. Teachers leaving the meeting refrained from talking about what happened inside or the vote, but they unanimously expressed the sentiment that they are being driven to extreme measures by an administration they believe is intentionally picking a fight with the union rather than trying to resolve challenges facing the schools through a democratic process.
“I don’t think [Emanuel] has the city’s and citizens’ best interest in mind,” said Tom Brady, an elementary school English teacher on the city’s far South side, who has worked for 24 years in the public school system. “Ultimately [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley did not want labor unrest. Emanuel is more willing to have labor unrest… It’s not just teachers, it’s also the librarians, and then the police and firefighters’ contracts are up next.”
Chambers said other unions in the public schools and citywide are watching the teachers' struggle as a bellwether of things to come.
“If they take us down, they take everyone down,” she said. “There are 19 unions in the schools. Our contracts affect the working conditions and contracts for everyone else.”
Other public-sector unions and community groups have rallied behind the teachers, and surveys have shown that parents strongly support the teachers’ position.
Barrett said, “People call Rahm the best union organizer we ever had.”