Workers Vanguard No. 1013

23 November 2012


Democrats Target Public Schools, City Unions

Chicago Teachers: Solid Strike, But Key Issues Unresolved

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) hit the picket lines on September 10, shutting down Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for nine days. Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel set the stage for the strike, the first in 25 years. Shortly after assuming office a year and a half ago, he canceled a scheduled, union-negotiated 4 percent pay hike and followed up by laying off 930 teachers, disproportionately black, kicking off an incessant campaign for union givebacks packaged as education “reform.” The mayor demanded a longer workday and school year and set out to replace seniority rights with merit raises and evaluations, giving the school board and principals total power in hiring and firing teachers. To this barrage Emanuel added constant calls on the Democratic-controlled state legislature to fix the teachers’ pension system (in the same manner one fixes one’s pet).

Enraged by this assault, union members were more than eager to strike by the start of the school year in August. The union tops managed to delay the strike’s onset so as not to embarrass the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. But when that was over, tens of thousands of teachers donned red union shirts and poured into the streets, setting up picket lines throughout Chicago. The strike drew widespread support, notably from parents of the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student population, many of whom joined the pickets. From Boston to Los Angeles, Hawaii and abroad, financial donations and letters of support flowed into CTU headquarters, particularly from other teachers unions.

Unionized teachers throughout the country saw the strike as crucial. The contract approved by the teachers on September 18 was, however, anything but bountiful. It contained a piddling 7 percent raise over its three-year life. The union beat back Emanuel’s demand for merit pay raises and blunted the attacks on seniority by winning limited recall rights for laid-off teachers, although benefits for those laid off were slashed. The demand to restore the stolen 4 percent raise was not included as a strike demand and the union leadership agreed to abandon any attempt to reclaim it, a concession never raised with the CTU ranks. Teachers are now faced with a longer school day and school year.

Backed by their Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), CTU president Karen Lewis and vice president Jesse Sharkey publicly proclaimed one week into the strike that they were happy with the “framework” of a deal that had been worked out at the bargaining table—before any discussion with the membership had been had. But sentiments against the contract ran high at the September 16 delegates’ meeting called to endorse the settlement. When Lewis proclaimed that “this is the deal we got,” delegates responded by shouting “Get it right!” and “Hell no, we won’t go!” The delegates voted to continue the strike, sending union bureaucrats scurrying to mobilize support for the deal. In the end, 21 percent of the teachers voted against the contract.

What animated the CTU members and teachers throughout the country were not the terms of a contract that could, at best, be characterized as a holding action against the mayor’s attack. It was the fact that Chicago teachers had, in determined strike action, taken on the latest of a series of attacks on public employees and, at least, held the line. This stands in stark contrast to the top labor officialdom’s refusal to mobilize strike action against anti-labor campaigns across the country, conspicuously so in the conflict with Republican Wisconsin governor and Tea Party favorite Scott Walker as he carried out an assault on public workers last year.

The Obama administration’s “school reform,” championed in Chicago by the president’s old right-hand man, Rahm Emanuel, is simply a Democratic Party version of these aggressions. It is nothing less than a ransacking of public education carried out with brass knuckles, specifically directed against teachers unions. Nationwide, state governments use federal funding rules to shutter supposedly failing public classrooms in ghettos and barrios while giving a green light to the proliferation of privately run charter schools. Funding to the states for compliance with these rules is weighted toward those that eliminate seniority and tenure. This paves the way for massive layoffs/firings of teachers in schools where students score lower in standardized testing, particularly threatening those in the poorest school districts.

No less than the Republican Party, the other capitalist party, the Democratic Party, is committed to making working and poor people pay for the devastation caused by the ongoing economic crisis. The Republicans, as currently composed, would prefer to smash the unions and public education outright. The Democrats want to further bind the unions to the state, while visiting such savageries as they deem necessary on the already tattered fabric of what passes for public education in this country.

The tops of the trade-union bureaucracy are, for the most part, an integral part of that party. Their loyalty to the class enemy was showcased by the appearance of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten at the Democratic National Convention to endorse Barack Obama’s re-election on the eve of her union members’ strike against his reforms in Chicago. Just before the CTU strike, she announced, “Now I know the struggle can be settled and I know we can move forward, but we need to find common ground and as Democrats we have to deal with each other.”

Given the pent-up rage of Chicago teachers, CTU leaders could do little else but echo their members’ call for strike action. But from the beginning, Lewis, Sharkey and CORE had accepted Emanuel’s insistence that the critical issues of school closings, layoffs and charter schools were non-negotiable and off limits. Not a word was said about the threats to pensions. Lewis had already hamstrung the union in 2011 by signing off on Illinois Senate Bill 7, which dictated the longer school day and year—without additional compensation—pushed by Emanuel. That legislation also required a 75 percent “yes” vote by the membership to authorize a strike, with ballots not cast counted as “no” votes, a measure designed to cripple the union.

After some initial criticism of Lewis for endorsing the bill, the CTU executive board backed her, and CORE signed off on the measure. Despite this betrayal by the CORE leadership, Chicago teachers blew the 75 percent mandate out of the water, with more than 90 percent voting in favor of striking. Hoping to avoid a contract fight over increased work time, CTU bureaucrats two months before the strike made a separate deal with Emanuel agreeing to lengthen the school day, supposedly by hiring laid-off teachers to work the extra hours. One hundred or more schools are likely to be closed next year, and many of those will probably be opened as non-union charter schools. Teacher layoffs are already beginning.

Since the strike, there has been a push to unionize the charter schools. A drive to organize all Chicago teachers while the strike was on certainly would have fueled enthusiasm for unionization. Lewis and Sharkey have generally taken a hands-off approach to the question of organizing charter school teachers, interpreting current law as enjoining the CTU from undertaking such organizing.

CTU leaders made no attempt to mobilize genuine union solidarity during the strike. There was no effort to seek joint action with the city’s firefighters and transit workers, who are still locked in contract negotiations. Nor was any effort made to bargain jointly with other unions within CPS, like the SEIU, which organizes the janitors who manned schools that functioned as day-care centers during the strike. Quite the contrary, CORE alibied in advance the crossing of picket lines by these unionists.

At the end of the strike, Emanuel launched a TV ad campaign extolling the “virtues” of the contract—no wonder, as it takes the ax to some key union gains. Simultaneously, he demanded that the state legislature provide him with the power he needs to suspend cost-of-living increases for retired teachers while phasing in higher pension contributions and raising the retirement age for CTU members. An Illinois Constitutional Amendment (HJRCA 49) that in effect aims to freeze pension increases for teachers and other public workers was introduced by House Speaker Mike Madigan, who along with his fellow Democrats has for years had total control over all bills issuing from the state legislature. The amendment polled a 56 percent “yes” vote in the recent general election but failed for lack of a three-fifths majority.

This measure makes clear the acceleration of efforts to contain the unions in a web of legal and contract restrictions designed to prevent strike action. Equally clear is that the recent strike is just one battle in Obama/Emanuel’s continuing “reform” war on teachers and their unions. A victory in this war requires a return to the class-struggle methods that built the unions, which won legal recognition of the right to strike, among other gains, by striking. Such militancy is predicated on the knowledge that the interests of the working class and the ruling class are diametrically opposed. It necessitates a program of class independence, breaking all illusions in the capitalist rulers and their agents. The answer is that working people need their own party, a multiracial revolutionary workers party to fight for their class interests.

Union vice president Sharkey is a supporter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Throughout the period leading up to the strike he uttered not a word of criticism of the course taken by Lewis and defended her action in signing off on Senate Bill 7. Similarly, Socialist Worker, newspaper of the ISO, alibied this cave-in and is now extolling the strike outcome as an out-and-out victory. While acknowledging a concession or two to Emanuel, the ISO presents contract terms as “not only big wins for the CTU, but for teachers everywhere who are opposed to their unions’ retreats on critical questions” (Socialist Worker, 26 September). The ISO’s assessment is completely congruent with that offered by the Democratic Party-loyal union tops. These labor misleaders stand in the way of the struggles that need to be waged. Chicago teachers, who today are working longer hours, who today see their pensions imperiled and who today face the prospect of layoffs, know that the war remains to be fought.