Chicago Teachers are my Heroes!

Chicago Teachers are my Heroes!

Chicago Teachers Union on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Chicago Teachers Union on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today marks one month after 80% of the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) rank and file members voted to accept a major victory, ending a week-long strike. The CTU has been fighting for better working conditions for teachers, and therefore better learning conditions for students. Their struggle has been relatively short: until 2010, the leadership of the CTU was unwilling to take the dramatic action needed to force real change. Teachers rose from the ranks and took the union back, replacing those leaders with organizers from the rank and file membership, accountable to the rank and file membership. Educators, parents, and students across the country are grateful for the monumental change the Chicago teachers have made to their union: moving from a service model to an organizing model. Teachers in Baltimore could benefit from the lessons from Chicago.

The Chicago Public School system (CPS) is one of the largest school districts in the country. Their 26,000 teachers represent the second largest local in the American Fedaration of Teachers (AFT). Their recent shift from a service model to an organizing model could be a huge boon to workers across the country and around the world.

In organizing model unionism, workers fight actively for a better situation for themselves by interfering with the ordinary operations of the bosses. The Union is a mass of people who are ready to take action to solve problems whether or not they are directly affected by these problems. Workers pay dues so that they can support each other in the event of a strike, and so that they can engage the public, via the media or other means, and ensure that their story is heard.

Under the service model, the Union is a small number of bureaucrats and a pool of dues money, collected from the workers at every pay, which these bureaucrats use to fund campaigns and gently encourage bosses to be forgiving. Workers and supporters may be asked to come out en masses for rallies, and may rarely be called upon to participate in direct action and demonstrate their power in small, tightly controlled ways. There are noticeably more demonstrations, canvasing, and campaigns in support of politicians than for material gains for workers.

Workers in shops organized under the service model tend to see their Unions as insurance policies: they pay their dues, monetary and otherwise, mostly in case they ever need protection from the boss. When they see problems in their workplaces, they call the union representatives, rather than calling a meeting of their fellow workers. The leaders of service model unions are often mildly corrupt. They are poised in the union at a level more similar to that of the bosses than that of the workers, and often share more sympathies with the bosses than strictly fits their job description.

The CTU has truly radical roots. In 1933, after more than two years of missing paychecks and steadily decreasing wages, Chicago's Teachers occupied some of Chicago's bank headquarters, demanding the money they had earned. The CTU, as a local of the AFT under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, was formed out of these actions. They gained a great deal of traction, and won a lot for teachers over the next 50 years. However, their last strike was in 1987, and, like most union locals in this country, they moved to a solidly service model and were operating that way as late as 2008.

At that point, a small group of conscientious educators started getting together and talking about the problems in the schools. Some problems were particular to the teachers, but many others affected the students' ability to learn. They also saw a frightening national movement gathering force: a movement seemingly set up to privatize public education and a great deal of public space and public sector jobs. They realized that teachers unions were caught right in the crosshairs, and could be destroyed, but were also uniquely poised to fight back.

This small Caucus of Rank and file Educators (CoRE) started organizing. They knew their students deserved better than what they were getting, so they started coming to school board meetings, hosting social events, and helping, in small quiet ways, to facilitate the transfer of some power back to the teachers on the ground. They found a steady leader in Karen Lewis—not the most radical, which some of the radicals think is unforgivable—but strong enough to stand up to the nonsense thus far. Overcoming incredible odds, their dynamic team won the rights and responsibilities of steering the Chicago Teachers Union.

This spring, Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to force a terrible contract on Chicago's teachers. It would have had them working longer hours with no additional pay. It would have forced teachers to pay much more for the benefits they and their families depend upon to keep them well. Possibly most insidious, it would have given up small yearly raises (tantamount to cost of living adjustments) in favor of a merit pay system.

Sometimes called “pay for performance” or “value-added evaluations,” the theory behind this controversial new tool is that teachers will do better quality work if their pay is linked to their evaluations. Of course, the underlying assumption is that teachers won't do their best work unless they are externally motivated. Baltimore teachers have been working under a contract with a somewhat modified merit pay scale for a little over a year. It has certainly affected the work habits of many teachers; unfortunately, not always for the best.

I promise to write entire articles about merit pay in the next few months. For now, I will sum it up by saying that evaluations are very subjective, and being able to pay the rent as it raises year to year is very objective. That means that teachers are forced to do whatever their evaluator deems necessary if they want to continue getting incremental raises every year. A lot of the most important work teachers do is silent, undocumented, and unquantifiable. Merit pay gives a great deal of control to administration; direct control over teachers' pay, and indirect control over what students learn.

Good teachers know that success begets success. If a student is struggling with multiplication, let them add for a while, give them space to have some success with the numbers. When they feel more comfortable, they'll be much more likely to multiply correctly. And once they feel successful with the easy ones, they'll be ready for the harder ones.

The CTU had just had a great success: they elected grassroots, rank and file teachers into leadership. Sure, it helped that these newly elected leaders fought actively against the "reformist" contract, where Baltimore's had jumped on the band wagon. But it is important not to underrate how powerful the teachers, para-educators, and related service providers felt.

And they were strategic with their success. Service model unions rely on politicians and elected officials; organizing model unions need outside support as well, but turn instead to their communities and other stakeholders. A group of restaurant workers trying to win sick leave would do well to explain to customers that without it, they have to come in to work when they're ill, potentially contaminating the food. Public schools may be battlegrounds for large political forces, but they are also a home-away-from-home for students, and a (presumably) safe place for parents to send children during the day.

The reformists understand the importance of parents and students as stakeholders all too well. Groups like Students First and Stand for Children have grown quickly in the past few years. Heavily funded by lobbyists for privatization, these organizations masquerade as grassroots community organizations. They make vague claims that are hard to argue against. Then, they print them on nice, glossy card-stock and pay campaigners to go door-to-door, describing a shadow world where teachers unions are one step away from barbequing their children. Parents sign the cards, and become "members" of the group.

In this way, a handful of billionaires and their lapdogs can claim to have 5,000 parents behind them. Most parents don't have time to do research on convoluted political topics. If they hear that 5,000 parents are on one side and union organized teachers are on the other, many will feel allegiance with the group they believe to be other parents. These "Astro-turf" groups—so called because they attempt to pass for grassroots, but are instead funded by large corporate entities—can push through underhanded legislation.

The CTU did an amazing job of heading this off. One of the guiding principles of CoRE's organizing was to include parents, train teachers to actively listen to parents, and learn to work together with them. They produced an elegant book entitled The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve, which they printed using union dues and circulated widely. In it, they showed how the actions they were fighting for directly affect students, in the classroom and beyond.

Lewis and the CTU were chided by more radical groups for not striking sooner, and for not staying out longer. For my part, I tried to suspend judgment and trust that they understood their situation better than I, though I made no secret of my active support of a strike. However, in hind site, it seems their caution was a strength. It is extremely important to recognize the line between the needs of the workers and the wants of the bosses, and to hold that line. Service model unionism often goes hand in hand with worker-management collaboration. This almost never wins a contract in favor of the workers.

However, collaboration and good-faith negotiation are two different things. One of the strongest weapons the bosses can use against striking teachers is the claim that they're selfishly keeping students out of school. It is also true that parents are counting on being able to send their students to school for supervision if nothing else, and when teachers go on strike, they can no longer necessarily do so. If the CTU had seemed overzealous to strike, they might have lost some support from parents and community. As it was, parents were largely convinced that the teachers had exhausted all reasonable options and that they were striking for the good of the students. Thousands of parents showed up at the picket lines during the course of the short-lived strike. Many more called and emailed City Hall. Without that community support, the outcome might have been very different.

I was particularly struck by how actively CTU and CoRE worked for real democracy. Throughout the negotiations, and especially during the strike, the rank and file membership voted on individual resolutions at their job sites. Emanuel tried to sell the rhetoric that the strike was a political move by the Union's leadership. Because the evidence pointed to a vibrant democratic process in the union, very few people bought it.

The way the strike ended bears some mention as well. Emanuel agreed to all of CTUs demands as workers. After months of negotiations and a 6 day strike, the final count was CTU:4, CPS:1. The teachers got their step increase, kept their benefits, had some of their members rehired after an unfair layoff, and got paid for working a longer school day. They also got backpay from their time on strike, and immunity for the organizers. CPS did get their longer school day, and many of the absurd layoffs of effective, tenured (disproportionally African American) teachers have thus far held.

Throughout the process, Emanuel had accused the teachers of using their student-centric demands as a guise. In the end, he threatened teachers with a court injunction to force them back to work if they tried to continue the strike in pursuit of these demands: smaller classes, more student services, and more holistic education to name a few. He might have figured that if parents and students saw that their teachers were really willing to stay out of work, and continue not getting paid, to push for better schools, the alliances formed would have been unbreakable. Perhaps he saw that Chicago could afford to fund the schools their students deserve, but that it would mean repealing tax breaks for wealthy landowners like School Board member Penny Pritzker, and shifting police down on the priority list.

Whatever the reason for the threatened injunction, Chicago's teachers democratically decided to end the strike, but not the fight. Currently, the CTU is busily hammering out the details of the contract, set to be brought into effect on October 24th, according to their website. They also continue to fight for the jobs of the teachers who were unjustly fired last year.

They remain committed to spreading the message that teachers, parents, and students are better equipped to work together with the help of an organizing model teachers union. To that end, a small group of CTU and CoRE members will speak with Baltimore teachers via internet videophone at a Teacher's Happy Hour, sponsored by Educators for Democratic Schools, at Liam Flynn's Ale House in Baltimore on Friday, October 19th. Please join us!

Iris Kirsch

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"5290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"300","style":"width: 400px; height: 300px; float: left; margin-right: 0.5em","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"400"}}]]Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.