Teachers angry over stalled talks take downtown Chicago

CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union gathered at the Thompson Center here on Tuesday and marched in a massive show of unity after a tumultuous month at the negotiation table with Chicago Public Schools.

With regard to the bread-and-butter issues, the fight comes after the CPS rejected even the modest demand for a 1-year contract with a 3 percent raise. They countered with what teachers say was an insulting offer of a 3-year contract and what amounts to a 7 percent pay cut  achieved though increasing their pension contributions. New healthcare copays and premiums represent a further cut.

“You have to remember that what you’re fighting for is not only a fair contract, but the history of fair contracts,” said Karen Lewis, President of the CTU, as she addressed a sea of red t-shirts jamming the square.

“Once again, remember, we have tried to provide solutions for them on so many levels but the things they don’t want to hear, the tough choices that people don’t want to make, is going where the money is,” Lewis told the crowds.

The CTU says plenty of revenue could be available to meet both the fair demands of the teachers and the educational needs of the city’s children.

One route toward a sustainable public school system, they say, is a “LaSalle Street” tax, a financial transaction tax in the vein of the Robin Hood tax recently proposed in the Senate by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The LaSalle Street tax, named after Chicago’s equivalent of Wall St., would amount to “thousandths of a penny” per financial transaction enacted at the stock market.

The teachers’ rejection of the austerity narrative was reflected by a new slogan carried on their signs and chanted in the streets: “CPS is broke on purpose.”

Included in what they say is the pile of evidence supporting that claim was the closing of 50 neighborhood schools last year by the corporate Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel even as his administration proposes adding 100 new charter schools over the next five years.

Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at the chartered Latino Youth High School, described for the People’s World the link between the fights of teachers, public and charter both, in the face of an artificial scarcity of funds. He is a leader of the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, Local 4343.

“The idea of public control of public goods is under attack by these neo-liberal privatizers. What we have here is a prosperity crisis,” he said, explaining that the citizens of Chicago are getting it at both ends from the financial elite of the city who at once use their power to lower taxes to bankrupt the city, and then implement their own selfish solution: privatization.

“The interests of teachers at charter schools are identical to the interests of teachers at district schools,” Baehrend said, His union of charter school teachers has already put out a resolution against the spread of charter as opposed to public schools and against public school closings.

“Charter teachers are essentially a second tier of teacher,” he said. “Even when we organize contracts, we get far fewer benefits and rights in our contract. They [charter schools] are not good for anyone.”

A ‘big tent’ fight for the ‘big picture’

As the speakers’ list came to a close, you could hear the drumlines tittering with anticipation at what would become the front of the mass march down Clark Street.

Among the smattering of hand-made and union-printed signs, you could see large canvass placards with the names of different schools in dark paint. These were used to rally the students who had come out to support their teachers in the streets.

Diana Castillo, a student at Brighton Park Elementary was in the streets supporting her teacher, Mr. Barrett. She spoke to the People’s World as the crowd marched and chanted.

“I’m protesting because students have a right to express what they feel. Public school schools shouldn’t be shut down. A lot of teachers were getting fired and I don’t think its fair. Students should come out and protest for what we believe.”

Mr. Barrett, a social studies teacher and a veteran of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, said that many of his students were involved in the strike then too.

“The biggest thing we need is for the public to understand that the students, the teachers, and the parents are all in this together. We have a very small group of people running this city for their own benefit and to the neglect of everyone else. When we have events like this, its very important but its part of a larger struggle to properly take care of everyone who lives here”.

With that big picture in mind, CTU has pulled together a large and diverse coalition to move toward progressive change. Among the allied contingencies in the march were the Amalgamated Transit Union, Jobs with Justice, National Nurses United and many community groups representing neighborhoods within the city.

A representative of the Kenwood-Oakley Community Association, a group that organizes and advocates primarily for African-American and low-income families in Chicago, was afforded an opportunity to address the crowd:

“I don’t want to live in a Chicago where communities are de-stabilized and families are turned upside down, and when thousands of people hit the streets the Mayor calls it ‘noise associated with change’… we commit that this is not just about what happens over the next six months but this is about communities around Chicago standing up and saying that we want a different kind of Chicago.”

Going to where the money is

As the march came to an end at the Chicago Board of Trade building, protestors were encouraged to fill out the square and “occupy their house”, the house of the financial class of Chicago.

Parents 4 Teachers, an organization of parents for the preservation of public education had member Rhoda Gutierrez stage a public intervention for Rahm Emmanuel, walking a crowd through all the stages from confrontation to consequences.

“They’re gambling with our public money! Through toxic swaps that benefit their banker friends and hurt our neighborhoods. They have addictions to TIFs that syphon money away from our public schools, parks, and libraries. They have an addiction to privatization!”

The TIF she referred to stands tax increment financing, a system by which current taxes in a certain district that are based off of property values are frozen at a certain level and the revenue gained in excess of the threshold are diverted into development funds that often end up in the profit margins of private corporations. According to a study by Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, TIFs “capture about $500 million in tax revenues each year, about half of which is diverted from the public school system”.

Tara Stamps, teacher and former candidate for 37th Ward Alderman, spoke out next. Her intensity enraptured the crowd and peaked the loudspeakers that projected her voice. There is little doubt that the folks inside the Chicago Board of Trade left their offices knowing that, if not the whole crowd, Stamps alone was gunning for them.

“They got the money! This is Chicago Board of Trade, they’re the biggest gamblers in the business and they’re gambling on our babies’ future. They don’t even want us here, so they’re gambling on shooing us out! They’re jailing us out, they’re privatizing us out, and they’re trying to get us out by any means necessary. That ain’t just black folks, that ain’t just Latino folks, that means if you are working class or poor people who want to work in this city, they don’t want you here but I’ll be damned if I am moved out of my Chicago!”

When she was finished, she dropped the mic in probably the most deserved mic drop this reporter has ever seen.

What’s next for CTU? With rumors abound of a potential strike in late fall, the negotiation teams will likely continue to chip away at the moneyed resistance as leaders and organizers will continue to garner support from the working class residents of Chicago. One thing that is for certain is that the CTU has done its homework on what it takes to build power.

Photo: Chicago Teachers Union Rally and March for a fair contract, June 9. Earchiel Johnson/People’s World





Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.