We need action to save Chicago schools

March 22, 2016

Chicago teachers Anthony Cappetta, Kirstin Roberts and Mike Shea look at the next steps in the battle pitting the CTU against a mayor and governor out to gut its power.

AFTER MONTHS of provocations from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and City Hall, Chicago teachers are preparing to push back.

On March 23, delegates to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates will meet to vote on a proposal to participate in a day of action on April 1.

Union delegates will have the final say, but organizing for April 1 has been underway for several weeks, with dozens of community and labor organizations preparing to join the CTU for a day of picket lines and protests, under the theme of "Shut it down." For the CTU, the day of action is seen as crucial preparation for an open-ended strike--as early as May 16--if CPS doesn't retreat from its concessions demands.

THE UNION, working under the terms of a contract that expired nine months ago, is considering the action in response to unfair labor practices committed by CPS, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempts to force the costs of a massive budget shortfall onto the backs of teachers and students--and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner maneuvers to seize control of CPS and impose his own union-busting program.

CTU members march against budget cuts that make students pay for the bankers' greed
CTU members march against budget cuts that make students pay for the bankers' greed (Bob Simpson)

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and another CPS official tried to whip up public opposition to the union, sending home a letter to parents accusing the CTU of organizing an "illegal one-day strike," which they termed a "divisive action."

But it's Claypool--who was brought in to CPS after presiding over attacks on other unions in his previous posts running the city's parks and transportation system--who is being "divisive," to put it mildly.

On one side, CPS is kowtowing to bankers and bond-buyers by borrowing money at extortionate interest rates, which makes its budget shortfall even worse. On the other, school bureaucrats are ordering principals to slash budgets at each school--with the cuts hitting special education students and other vulnerable kids the hardest.

Further, Claypool has already threatened to unilaterally force a 7 percent pay cut on teachers by making them absorb a greater part of their pension payments. That would be a reversal of a practice instituted decades ago when CPS took on those costs in lieu of giving teachers a raise.

Then there's the specter of mass layoffs. Earlier this year, after the CTU's big bargaining team rejected a previous concessions contract, Claypool declared he would have to cut up to 5,000 educators' jobs to fund schools for the rest of the year. He ended up actually cutting only a few jobs--out of fear that deeper layoffs would trigger action by the CTU and a backlash from parents.

City Hall is right to be afraid. Opinion polls asking people who they trust to run Chicago schools show the CTU is three times more popular than Emanuel--and the mayor can't forget how the union's nine-day strike in 2012 won widespread support and blocked his union-busting agenda.

Since late last year, the mayor has watched his approval ratings crater to the lowest level in modern Chicago history as the result of a police cover-up of the 2014 execution of a Black youth, Laquan McDonald, which was captured on video.

Add to that the widespread anti-banker sentiment, which was recently given a boost in the days before the Illinois presidential primary when candidate Bernie Sanders tied his denunciations of Wall Street to Emanuel's attacks on public education, including the mass closure of some 50 schools in 2013.

In a contest of credibility and popularity, the CTU wins out over City Hall, hands down.

BUT THE threats haven't gone away. Despite having little to no public support, Emanuel and Claypool are tearing up the old teachers' contract to do what they want--even as they demand that the CTU stick to the letter of the agreement.

City and school officials are also manipulating a state law known as SB 7, which was passed specifically to hamstring the CTU by barring the union from striking until a series of mediation and fact-finding procedures are completed. As in 2012, the CTU met and surpassed SB 7's absurdly high requirement when 88 percent of members voted to authorize a strike back in December.

Lurking in the wings is Rauner, the near-billionaire hedge fund boss who spent his way into the Illinois governor's office in 2014 with a three-item to-do list: reduce taxes for business and the rich, slash spending on social programs, and crush unions, especially in the public sector.

These are services that the most vulnerable people in the state depend on for their very survival--and Rauner is ready to shrink them or shut them down altogether, even as he cuts taxes for big business in Illinois. The upside-down priorities of the bankers and the political elite that serve them couldn't be more obvious.

Rauner's war on labor is directly related to the austerity drive. The governor has already taken aim at the 100,000-member AFSCME Council 31--he is threatening to break any AFSCME walkout by replacing strikers with the National Guard.

But above all, Rauner is itching to confront the CTU. To do so, he has tried to take advantage of Emanuel's weakness by pushing legislation to force CPS into bankruptcy, while angling for the state board of education to seize control of Chicago schools.

In fact, Rauner is trying to accomplish the job Emanuel couldn't when he dared the CTU to strike in 2012 and then suffered the consequences when teachers pushed back, with mass public support from working-class Chicago behind them. Since then, however, Rauner and Rahm have both learned some important lessons, and they're back with a vengeance in their attempts to bust the CTU.

FOR THE union to have the best chance to win a fair contract and funding for our schools, it must build alliances with all the people facing the short end of the stick from the city and the state.

That includes public university faculty and staff enduring mass layoffs and furloughs, home health care workers who aren't getting paid, city college students who have watched classes canceled, the recipients of public services that are drying up or disappearing altogether, activists fighting for racial and social justice, and more.

The proposed action to "Shut it down" on April 1 would be a huge step forward in building a united movement. That's why it's important for the CTU to lead the way with a House of Delegates vote in favor of participation.

By making it clear that the union won't accept unfair labor practices and a one-sided interpretation of labor agreements, Chicago teachers can send a message to Emanuel, Claypool and Rauner that they are determined to defend their pay and working conditions--which are also their students' learning conditions.

April 1 would also be a mass show of solidarity by teachers linking their own fight with other battles against the city and state war on public services. Already, the call to "shut it down" has inspired organizing among students and workers at public universities, social service providers and even fast-food workers fighting for a living wage.

Rauner's blackmail and the deceptive propaganda from CPS are both intended to make people hesitate to act--teachers, other public-sector workers, parents and community members. Working people are being bullied into not resisting pay cuts, layoffs and all the other elements of the austerity agenda.

CTU members can counter the insecurity and point a way forward by pushing the union's demand for new revenue to fund public schools and more--by taxing the rich. Winning those funds from the city and state isn't going to happen with one day of strikes and actions. We need a social movement that demands the needs of people come before the bankers' profits.

But CTU members, alongside other unionists and community members, can take a crucial step forward--toward both winning the CTU's contract struggle and building that broader movement--on April 1.

Lee Sustar contributed to this article.

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