Chicago's public school teachers are marching in the streets on Friday, calling on local and state officials to increase revenue not only to schools but to public services citywide—and they're joined by an astonishing upswell of support, as fast food workers, transit workers, higher education professionals, community groups, and others joined in the day of action.
Striking fifth-grade teacher and organizer Jenny DeLessio-Parson told Common Dreams, "The current funding structure of our city and state favor[s] the rich and powerful. Today is about showing solidarity with all of the people and groups who are being overlooked and underfunded... We are demanding a shift in priorities at the city and state level!"
The day of action was provoked by the latest development in the union's long-winded contract negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The teachers' last contract expired in June of last year, and in the past when there was no new contract, the union argues, CPS abided by the terms of the old one—but this year, CPS made cuts to the contract without the permission and agreement of the union.
This "unfair labor practice" prompted the strike, leader of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Karen Lewis said in an interview on local television.
But the strike goes beyond the teachers' contract. "This is a call for revenue for funding the schools and social services in this state appropriately," Lewis said. "And this is not just from pre-K to 12, this is also higher ed, this is the MAP grants that our students—many of whom graduated from CPS schools—are not getting because of this budget crisis and the fact that the governor has completely shut down the budget process until he gets his wish on an anti-union agenda."
Embattled Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, roundly criticized for his pro-privatization and anti-union stance on public schools, was also in the striking teachers' crosshairs: "Hey hey ho ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!" was a cry that rang out at picket lines across the city.
The state of Illinois, headed by anti-union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, is billions of dollars in debt and entering its 10th month without a budget—and Lewis says the day of action is needed to advocate for schools and other services that are suffering without adequate public funds.
"The strike is a call for increased revenue for Chicago Public Schools and its students, and a direct response to continued attacks and efforts toward union-busting from Gov. Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mayor’s handpicked CPS CEO, Forrest Claypool," CTU stated.
During a rally on Friday, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey declared to the crowd:
We are going to fight to win the schools that our children deserve! It has been far too invisible for too long that the people who depend on our public schools and depend on our public services are the most vulnerable among our society. They are black and Latino low income people of this city who have not had their voices heard. It is a shame that in order to make our voices heard, we have had to close every school in this city. It is a shame that in order to make our voices heard, we have had to go on strike. But if that is what we have to do, that is what we will do. Frankly what’s happening in our public system right now amounts to nothing more than racist neglect.
As Savannah Mirisola-Sullivan, a fifth-grade Chicago teacher, lamented in a social media post before the strike, "I will strike with the Chicago Teachers Union this Friday because my ability to practice community and to care for some of the most vulnerable in our city is under attack, made nearly impossible, every day."
Forty-five community groups and the SEIU officially joined in the day of action. This solidarity in a strike is highly unusual in the United States—and the unprecedented action may or may not be legal, observers say, characterizing the union's sweeping call for increased revenue as "uncharted territory."
Strikes like this one "happen pretty much everywhere but the U.S.," said Bob Bruno, professor and director of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, in an interview with VICE.
"They're very common in France, they're common in Germany and Central and South America," Bruno told the online news outlet. "It's only in the U.S., because of the historical evolution of labor law, that you can only strike legally under the narrowest of conditions. And a political strike over larger policy issues is clearly prohibited."
CTU's day of action "hearkens back to the '30s and '40s, when organized labor was using the strike to make larger economic and political points and trying to pursue broader economic and social goals. We don't have much precedent for it," Bruno said. And so Friday's strike is "extraordinary."
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Some worried about the ramifications of Friday's action. When asked if shutting down Chicago's schools and disrupting traffic could play into Illinois Gov. Rauner's "anti-union hands," CTU's Lewis responded, "No. I see it as Rauner being asked to do something which is basically his job: develop a budget, send it to the general assembly and see what they say there. But he doesn’t want to do that."
Rauner wants to "shake up Springfield," Lewis said. "But shaking up Springfield doesn’t mean you're going to snatch people's rights and their ability to govern themselves."
"We needed revenue," Lewis explained, "and other people need it too, so we’re working in concert. This is not just CTU." She continued:
We've had cuts. We've had special education aide cuts. We've had children not getting appropriate minutes for their IEPs, Independent Education Plans. We've already had that this year. We have classrooms that are getting bigger and bigger because they've slashed budgets.
We are literally dying a death of a thousand cuts.
"We are going to strike over things that judges might consider illegal, but we consider moral and right," VICE quoted Sharkey saying at a public-sector union conference in New York. "There might be judges that disagree with us... but we disagree with them."
Strikers and supporters captured scenes of picket lines and rallies throughout the city:
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