CHICAGO—“What this is about, brothers and sisters, is about a moment in time where either the pendulum is going to swing one way or swing the other.”
So said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, in a deep solemn voice appropriate for the serene stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings of the historic Chicago Temple, where Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members, parents and supporters held an impassioned and lively town hall meeting Wednesday night.
Earlier that day, CTU President Karen Lewis had filed the required 10-day notice for a strike. The notice does not mean a strike will definitely be called, but it gives the union the ability to strike any time thereafter.
This is the latest step in a battle between the 32,000-member union and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration that has escalated for more than a year and is being watched around the country as the latest struggle for the survival of public-sector unionism.
Teachers, parents, religious leaders and other union members who spoke at the town hall bluntly attacked what they describe as the hypocrisy and ulterior motives of an administration that constantly invokes the well-being of students while attacking union teachers. Speakers noted that “the nation’s eyes are on Chicago,” as Teachers for Social Justice coordinating committee member and education policy expert Pauline Lipman put it before reading a statement of solidarity from a French teachers union. A group of Wisconsin public school teachers expressed their solidarity with red T-shirts and picket signs emblazoned with hearts. National Association of Letter Carriers union Branch 11 vice president Michael Caref noted that the teachers are energizing the labor movement citywide.
“We’re here to let the Chicago Teachers Union know we stand with you 100 percent,” Caref said. “We are going to win this fight. You might not think of teachers as the strongest union; when you think of the strong labor unions out there you think maybe of the Teamsters or hopefully the Letter Carriers! But the Chicago Teachers Union has really led the way and turned around the whole environment of what the mayor and administration has tried to do in this city.”
Two parents on the panel that kicked off the town hall and numerous people who spoke during the open mic period stressed that they won't fall for the Emanuel administration’s efforts to turn parents against teachers.
“When you bad mouth, belittle and disrespect our teachers, you’re badmouthing and belittling our kids,” said Erica Clark, co-founder of the group Parents 4 Teachers, which was started around the same time that CTU's current leadership won control of the union. “As a parent I had just had enough. So we came together to see if we could find a way to take the admiration and support and respect that individual parents feel for their teachers, and translate it into some kind of political support…on the streets, down at the Board of Education. We are taking a stand and saying enough is enough.”
Parent and adult educator Amy Green noted that like many Chicagoans she was shocked to learn that the members of the city Board of Education are entirely appointed by the mayor. The town hall included numerous calls for an elected board, a move the administration has opposed.
Meanwhile teachers invoked this week's abrupt firing of two English teachers at the Social Justice High School as evidence of a general climate of dysfunction, union-busting and retaliation by the board and other school brass. The Social Justice school, known as SoJo, is one of four small schools-within-a-school at the high school in the immigrant neighborhood of Little Village founded after a 2001 hunger strike by mothers and grandmothers. While details of the recent events there are still murky, teachers and students see the turmoil as driven by the larger teachers’ struggle.
After a new principal with close ties to the CPS central office took over recently at SoJo, the school canceled its Advanced Placement English classes, and then the two popular English teachers were fired with no notice.
“Five minutes after my last class I was escorted by security from a school I helped found,” recounted fired teacher Katie Hogan. “The principal gave me a letter, it was one paragraph long. It said ‘Your position has been closed for economic reasons.’”
The school had just logged its highest English and writing scores ever, according to Hogan, and yet two full-time English teachers’ positions were eliminated, with the only other English teacher being on maternity leave. Hogan and the other teacher weren’t even allowed to collect their belongings from the classroom.
While the teachers’ union contract and the tenure system theoretically provide strong protections against firing, teachers note that administrators can often get around these by eliminating the positions of people they see as troublemakers.
“This is what happens in Chicago Public Schools, this isn’t a story unique to Social Justice,” Hogan said. “I started hearing from people all over Chicago, how their positions had been closed or redefined. One thing that rung out was these people who were talking were all really strong union activists. We might not be able to connect the dots right now, but we know who the puppet master is.”
Town hall moderator Dennis Kosuth, an emergency room nurse at the county hospital and member of the National Nurses United union, described a laid-off CPS teacher visiting the public hospital and waiting hours to get high blood pressure medication because he lost his health insurance. Hogan, who brought her infant daughter to the town hall, noted that her family’s health insurance expires in 26 days.
“There’s always money for when NATO comes to town or when they want to build a new hotel in Hyde Park,” said Kosuth, referring to the tens of millions of dollars spent on the NATO summit in May and the awarding of $5.2 million in tax increment financing (TIF) subsidies for a Hyatt near the University of Chicago. “But there’s never money for schools or decent housing. … Well the money exists for better education, and we need to fight for it.”