The CTU rallies for a contract and a lot more

June 15, 2015

Gala M. Pierce reports from a rally called by the Chicago Teachers Union to prove that teachers and their supporters are ready for another fight against Rahm Emanuel.

NO SUPERMAN will swoop down to save the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). But thousands of spirited, red-shirted Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members and their supporters were in the streets to make their defense of public education at the CTU's Rally for a Fair Contract and a Just Chicago June 9.

Educator and organizer Tara Stamps, who forced a runoff election in the 37th Ward aldermanic race in city elections earlier this year, said the community has to stand up and fight not just for teachers, who are facing demands for a pay cut of as much as 10 percent in their looming contract battle, but for all public-sector jobs and services.

"You might as well put on your cape," Stamps said in a passionate speech near the close of the rally, after a march from the James R. Thompson Center down the LaSalle Street financial corridor to the Chicago Board of Trade building. "This is not a CTU fight, this is a public employees' fight...This is bigger than a contract: This means war!"

Stamps asked the crowd to repeat her words, and each time, a loud "I declare war!" echoed down the canyon of buildings.

Chicago teachers and their supporters rally for a fair contract and a just Chicago
Chicago teachers and their supporters rally for a fair contract and a just Chicago

And what was the demonstrators' answer to the city's claim of a $1.1 billion deficit in the CPS budget--which the union has been describing as "broke on purpose"? From CTU President Karen Lewis to the picket signs of individual marchers, the refrain was the same: Tax the rich.

"Make the rich pay their fair share, and if you don't, we'll be back on the streets," said Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, a member of Parents 4 Teachers.

Gutierrez lambasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel and School Board President David Vitale for suggesting a casino to fix the city's fiscal crisis when they constantly gamble away public money through toxic interest-rate swap deals made through Wall Street investment firms--and siphon money out of public funds for tax-increment financing districts.

Instead, Gutierrez advocated for a financial transaction tax for LaSalle Street and a graduated income tax.

THE RALLY was organized after the Board of Education rebuffed the following CTU demands: a librarian and nurse in every school, limits on standardized testing, enforced class size limits and restorative justice measures to ensure racial justice in a system where the students are overwhelmingly Black and Brown.

The board countered instead by asking that the union pay for pension costs, which would amount to a 7 percent pay cut--plus more for health care costs, which would take another 3 percent bite out of pay.

Ilhan Avcioglu, who teaches history to upperclassmen at Kenwood Academy, agreed that something has to give, and the rich to need pay their fair share. He was most concerned about teachers keeping their jobs, class sizes ballooning and pensions being stolen. "Teachers are doing the best they can under these conditions," Avcioglu said. "The cuts already have made an uneven playing field between suburban and city schools. The city is holding its own, but anymore cuts won't allow us to do that."

Michael Sims, who came to the rally with his wife and two sons, said supporting teachers is supporting students. He would like to see smaller classrooms, more wraparound services for students and more of an emphasis on the arts. He thought the CTU strike in 2012 inspired the whole city. "It showed that these teachers can fight for what they believe in," Sims said. "That was great to see. I'll support them every time."

Sims said that CPS has underfunded the schools in his neighborhood of Englewood. When he learned that the textbooks are two years behind and the curriculum isn't keeping up in his neighborhood school, he enrolled his son Keyan, a seventh-grader, at Providence Englewood Charter School. His other son, Damone, a sophomore, attends Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, a CPS school. Sims wants an elected school board of educators to make decisions for the district, not the current board that is appointed by the mayor.

Some saw the importance of the rally not just locally, but as a symbol of the greater fight across the nation.

Jason Lee, a student at Boston's Harvard Divinity School, who has been interning with the Chicago Teachers Union, saw the teachers' strike in 2012 as a game-changer for educators nationwide. Teachers in Chicago set as their strike goals not just fighting for fair wages and benefits, but for the schools that they and their students deserve.

Andy Willis, who lives in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood, has lived in Chicago for 25 years. He supports the fightback against corporate interests. "I believe the union is going to lead the whole country when it comes to stopping privatization," Willis said.

Sister Kathleen Desautels of the Eighth Day Center for Justice attended the rally to support not only teachers, "but all the people they represent who are left out in this economy: the 99 Percent." It's unjust for the 1 Percent to steal pensions from workers who have been contributing for years, she said.

Desautels also favors a financial transaction tax--which she said was called "the Tobin tax" in the past. "If we charged one penny for each transaction that happened on LaSalle Street, we would have billions of dollars," said the Humboldt Park resident. "They don't want to do that because they don't want to upset the 1 Percent."

A rally organized by the Chicago Teachers Union is exactly what is needed, Desautels said. "This is the energy that will transform the world to bring about the kind of equality that we all want," she said, "or at least, it is a spark of it."

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