Most readers of this journal will have read accounts of the spirited strike by Chicago's public school teachers in September and will have learned that the generally accepted view is that the strike represented a significant victory for the teachers and even for the working class as a whole. For me, it depends on what counts as a victory. It appears that Chicago's teachers managed to secure modest pay increases, that largely mimic prior contracts in terms of the distribution of the increases among teachers with more or less years of experience and more or fewer credentials, and that they held off many of what they saw as the most serious threats to their security and their everyday independence. They also bloodied the nose of perhaps the most despicable politician ever to hold office in a major city in the United States—but I don't want to be quoted about degrees of despicability in a land with so many contenders.
My guess is that, for many, the union's apparently successful defense counts as a victory. But suppose the standard for victory is a different one—the standard of increased unity across the working class. In that case, the judgment is not so clear. In the case of public schools in the United States, increased unity across the working class can only be achieved by the elimination of the miserable inequities in how schools are funded, how enrollment in schools is determined, how children are taught, and how much students learn. It does not appear that the “victory” in Chicago did much of anything towards reaching those goals.
Let me begin by citing just a few characteristic examples of the celebrations of the strike and the “victory” from across the political spectrum.
There was the unforgettable Day One, when tens of thousands of red-shirted members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and supporters swarmed downtown, shutting down traffic around the Board of Education headquarters and City Hall in what a local radio news reporter aptly called "an older and more polite version of Occupy Chicago."
In truth, it wasn't all that polite, either, if you happened to read the handmade placards and hear the chants directed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who began targeting Chicago teachers months before he took office.
Then Day Two—another day, another mass march. After picket duty at schools in every neighborhood of the city in the morning, teachers again swept downtown, this time turning stately Buckingham Fountain on the lakefront into the site of an open-air union rally that conjured the spirit of famous Chicago labor battles of the past.
The following day came the three big demonstrations at high schools on the South and West Sides, in neighborhoods populated predominately by African Americans and Latinos. The hot late-summer sun didn't deter teachers or neighborhood residents who cheered them on.
And the excitement wasn't limited to the big protests. Anyone who walked the picket lines at neighborhood schools experienced not just the impressive solidarity among teachers, but the groundswell of support for the CTU among parents and the wider community. Those wearing a red T-shirt from the CTU or the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign were routinely stopped and thanked on the street, while getting friendly honks and waves from passing cars.
Diane Ravitch (a prominent critic of current “reform” efforts):
Why did they strike? After 17 years of reform and disrespect, they were fed up with the bullying. They were tired of the non-educators and politicians telling them how to teach and imposing their remedies. Reform after reform, and children in Chicago still don't have the rich curriculum, the facilities, and the social services they need.
They were sick of the incessant school closings. They were sick of seeing charter schools open that get wildly uneven results yet are praised to the skies by Arne Duncan and now Rahm Emanuel. They knew that the charter schools are non-union and that the Mayor will use them to break the union.
In the end, the union pitted itself against Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Chicago's business and civic leadership, and the Race to the Top. It took on the most powerful forces in the city, and yes, even President Obama, who remained neutral.
And by taking a stand, by uniting to resist the power elite, these teachers discovered they were strong. They had been downtrodden and disrespected, but no longer. They put on their red T-shirts and commanded the attention of the nation and the admiration of millions of teachers. Powerless no more, they showed that unity made them strong. 98 percent voted to authorize the strike, and 98 percent voted to end it.
The strike is one of the few weapons available to the powerless. Without the union, the teachers would have been ignored, and the politicians would be free to keep on reforming them again and again and again.
The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful.
The teachers said, “Enough is enough. With us, not to us.”
Regardless of the terms of the contract, the teachers won.
Teachers for Social Justice:
In this strike, so much more was won than a contract. After 17 punishing years of corporate, neoliberal policies, Chicago teachers stood up, and they stood up for the whole country. This courageous strike was born of a new kind of teacher unionism—democratic, activist, allied with parents, and fighting not only for fair compensation but for a richer, more humane and just education.
The reform leadership of the CTU has shown teachers that for their professional knowledge to be respected, they must fight for it to be so. Try as the media did to cast the strike as being a traditional labor dispute about salary, they couldn't make a convincing case to Chicago parents. Because of the union's morally-essential (and strategically-sound) embedding of economic demands in a framework for truly improving the schools, parents understood that teachers were on the side of their children.
…this strike has changed the political equation, not only here in the US but internationally. With the exception of Finland and North Korea, schools are being privatized and curriculum reduced to preparation for standardized tests, globally. This is an international project to make schooling serve the interests of transnational corporations. Chicago teachers have shown that a union leadership with a vision and courage, one that empowers its members, can turn back some of the most pernicious elements of this global project.
One telling aspect of the strike is that the media and the politicians totally missed what was brewing. The story actually began when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) organized school by school and swept the old guard out of office. Their program was precisely the one on which this strike was waged.
…. What Chicago teachers have shown the world is that teachers unions have the potential to lead a movement that will take back our schools. On this Karen Lewis was wrong: Chicago teachers did change the world in their struggle for this contract.
Not so fast!
I believe that many, perhaps most, of the members of the union acted in good faith when they insisted that they were striking on behalf of their students. But the agreement that ended the strike does not appear to have anything to contribute to the realization of those promises. As one despondent teacher wrote in the days after the deal was being finalized:
Like so many other schools out there, at our school we have been doing everything-plus-beyond-beyond possible on the front lines of this strike—the continuation of a natural thing for all of us as we work daily in CPS.
We have done all that we can (and more) that has been asked of us by CTU leadership for this one week and prior and in so doing have drawn in many parents and students and neighbors.
The CTU members at my school who have gotten back to me (quite a few) have told me not to vote for a contract that I have not been able to read and digest on such short notice; in fact, on principle a few have told me to just vote NO already. They will NOT appreciate going back into the school just to read the fine print and need to start the process all over again by voting NO when it gets to them, but they will. They are willing to keep going right now, and there will be resentment if the House of Delegates votes in favor of something that goes to the membership with far less than what expectations have promised from our massive rallies and turnouts across the city.
I am speaking for myself, but I think I can state a theme for the schools on the southeast side on the whole, judging by a Friday area rally organized by Sue Garza: "ONE DAY LONGER! ONE DAY STRONGER!" I predict that the southeast side schools will NOT vote for a weak or too compromised contract and will be extremely disappointed if one is presented after all of this or somehow such a proposal actually passes for a working contract. This is an understatement.
To CORE and CTU leadership:
NOTE: I am writing this as a CTU member and delegate with zero information from a House of Delegates meeting that was supposed to be about updates to contract negotiations (of which there was little to none) with an agenda listing Q & A that had no A in the actual meeting.
It's like this. There are issues across the city that we have made catch fire via our CTU signs and chants and rallies. If we only get something for ourselves in this contract now, that will be shameful. The following must be declared by CTU to be NON-NEGOTIABLES before any contract is ratified (or even presented to the HoD): class size, wrap-around services, standardized tests, and school closures. (And we need to add small parts of the longer school day in there.) THERE IS NO DIGNITY IN WALKING BACK INTO OUR SCHOOLS WITHOUT ANY CONTRACT LANGUAGE ON THESE ISSUES over which we have rallied others out there (students, parents, community members, and strangers at gas stations in Indiana for crying out loud) to fight for with us.
Please, don't tell me these are not legal items for contract negotiation. WE CAN DO THIS. We know we won't "get everything." But we should hold strong for MORE than stopping this strike this weekend would probably get us. Ten years from now, will one or two more weeks (or more) have mattered in this fight, if you are someone who is thinking that we can't face it any more right now? "Short term pain for long term gain." Deferred gratification. That stuff we try to instill in our students on a daily basis. If this results in only "more money for the employees" then we will be seen as the hoodwinking snake oil peddlers of all time. I can hear it already: "They were only in it for themselves from the start." "Look how they only got something for themselves but nothing else for anyone else after all that." "What about 'Children First' for the CTU?"
Zupan posted those words on Substance in the days between a first House of Delegates meeting where delegates refused to approve the tentative deal and a second meeting several days later where they did. Although she has written at least one other article for Substance since, it is not clear if she still has the same sense of outrage that the “victory” of the union came with no comparable victory for the city's public school students. It is clear from all accounts that I have read that the strike enjoyed widespread and even enthusiastic support in the working class neighborhoods of the city. Furthermore, that support had a lot to do with the city negotiators giving up as much as they gave.
So what's the deal?
The leadership of the CTU is in the hands of members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). The Caucus's web page suggests that it is committed to building alliances between educators and communities:
The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) is a group of dedicated teachers, retirees, Paraprofessional School Related Personnel (PSRPs), parents, community members and other champions of public education. We fight for equitable public education and hope to improve the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) so that it fights both on behalf of its members and on behalf of Chicago's students.
It's admirable that CORE asserts that it wants the union to fight on behalf of the union's members and on behalf of their students. It's certainly much better than the United Federation of Teachers' position in New York City in 1968 where it more or less said that it didn't care about the students, it only cared about its members (although even then the union insisted that smaller class sizes—and more union members—was exactly what was needed). But is the CORE promise much better at the end of the day than the UFT's callous indifference?
Months before the September strike, the CTU published a report titled The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve, which it asserted was based on research. The report's recommendations were the following:
- Recognize That Class Size Matters: Drastically reduce class size. We currently have one of the largest class sizes in the state. This greatly inhibits the ability of our students to learn and thrive.
- Educate The Whole Child: Invest to ensure that all schools have recess and physical education equipment, healthy food offerings, and classes in art, theater, dance, and music in every school. Offer world languages and a variety of subject choices. Provide every school with a library and assign the commensurate number of librarians to staff them.
- Create More Robust Wrap-around Services: The Chicago Public Schools system (CPS) is far behind recommended staffing levels suggested by national professional associations. The number of school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists must increase dramatically to serve Chicago's population of low-income students. Additionally, students who cannot afford transportation costs need free fares.
- Address Inequities In Our System: Students and their families recognize the apartheid-like system managed by CPS. It denies resources to the neediest schools, uses discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color, and enacts policies that increase the concentrations of students in high poverty and racially segregated schools.
- Help Students Get Off To A Good Start: We need to provide age-appropriate (not test-driven) education in the early grades. All students should have access to pre-kindergarten and to full-day kindergarten.
- Respect And Develop The Professionals: Teachers need salaries comparable to others with their education and experience. They need time to adequately plan their lessons and collaborate with colleagues, as well as the autonomy and shared decision-making to encourage professional judgment. CPS needs to hire more teaching assistants so that no students fall through the cracks.
- Teach All Students: We need stronger commitments to address the disparities that exist due to our lack of robust programs for emergent bilingual students and services for students faced with a variety of special needs.
- Provide Quality School Facilities: No more leaky roofs, asbestos-lined bathrooms, or windows that refuse to shut. Students need to be taught in facilities that are well-maintained and show respect for those who work and go to school there.
- Partner With Parents: Parents are an integral part of a child's education. They need to be encouraged and helped in that role.
- Fully Fund Education: A country and city that can afford to take care of its affluent citizens can afford to take care of those on the other end of the income scale. There is no excuse for denying students the essential services they deserve.
Let's take this apart. With the exception of numbers 4, 8 and 9, all of the recommendations come down to a request for more resources (meaning more money)—resources that would, for the most part, benefit current and future members of the CTU. (But let's keep in mind numbers 4, 8 and 9 to see how well they fared in the agreement that ended the strike.) In the meantime, let's note that there is not a word in the recommendations about the need to change what's going on in classrooms and schools every day that might actually help Chicago's kids to learn.
What Got Negotiated?
The CTU leadership released this account of how the negotiations were going on August 22nd:
With time running short the CTU and the BOARD are still far apart.
After a successful mass rally, a 90 percent strike vote, and a favorable Fact Finder's Report, the Board signed an “Interim Agreement” on July 23, 2012 in which they promised to limit instructional time to 296 minutes in Elementary School and 251 minutes in High School. They also promised to hire extra teachers from a pool of displaced CTU members in order to properly staff the schools. However, our experience in Track E, where school has been back since August 6th, has shown us that many principals have not received adequate positions to operate a “Better Day.” Teachers are being asked to work through lunch and preps, keep students in class during 'recess,' and fill the day with 'club-time' and other non-instructional activity. This means it is more important than ever to win a contract that defends three (3) key priorities:
- A “Better” Day—with Art, Music, World Language, Physical Education and other services like counseling anchored by contract language that assures prep and break time, limits on teaching load, and limits on duties.
- Job Security—in the form of guarantees that the Board will conduct future hiring from a pool of displaced members before making new hires, as well as an appeal process and other protections against unfair evaluation.
- Fair compensation—we deserve a fair raise for work that will be more stressful and challenging. In addition, we seek to protect our salary schedule (steps) and keep out merit pay, insurance premium hikes, and changes to our accumulation of sick days that undercut our benefits.
The following summary is intended to provide a snapshot of what is “on the table” as of August 22, 2012.
- Duration: The Board is proposing a 4 year contract. The Union is proposing a 2 year contract.
- Pay: The Board is proposing raises of 2 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent with a 2 percent increase in the 4th year dependent on the adoption of merit pay. The Board is proposing to freeze steps for the duration of the contract. The Union's last proposal was made during fact finding for 19 percent and 3 percent.
- Evaluation: The Board is proposing to implement a plan in which student test scores and surveys will eventually be 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation (by year 5). The Union is proposing a lower cap on “Student Growth Measures,” revisions to the “cut scores” that determine ratings (i.e., how many points are required for a proficient rating) as well as an appeal process.
- Working Conditions/Structure of Day: The Board is proposing to do away with 18 separate articles in the contract that relate to details of our work day such as our class load, our breaks, and the nature of our work assignments. These include Article 4 (Elementary School), 5 (Middle School), 6 (High School), 7 (Elementary School Counselors), 9 (PSRPs), etc. The Union is proposing language that would guarantee that the Board follow their promises on prep time, staffing, and breaks.
- Class Size: The Board is proposing that it continue following its current policy. The Union is seeking to lower class sizes and make class size subject to effective enforcement.
- Job Security: The Board has not yet agreed to place language for a 'hiring pool' in our contract. We are also seeking protection of PSRPs' work.
In addition, we remain concerned about the Board's plans to lengthen the school year, push for changes to our pension (which is controlled by the legislature) and close community schools while opening charters.
Interestingly enough, although the summary still leads with the demand for “a better school day,” there were no issues “on the table” that relate to that demand.
Essentials of New Contract
After the strike dust had settled, these are the highlights of the new contract as CTU saw them.
- Term: Three Years, 3 percent, 2 percent, 2 percent with an option for a 4th year @ 3 percent raise if Union accepts. Eliminate “wage reopener” 47-2.2.
- Maintain PSRPs annual salary table. PSRPs get 4 percent (2 percent COLA and 2 percent “adjustment”) in year 1. Years 2 and 3 the same as teachers.
- Steps and Lanes: full value of steps are preserved, but increases raises for mid-level steps and steps 14, 15 and 16. Lanes are preserved. No merit pay.
- Benefits: Health Care benefits preserved at current levels with no increase in rates or co-pays. Wellness program.
- School Calendar: 175 full student attendance days; 6 half days; 7 full PD days; 6 half days; 2 report card pickup days (non-student attendance)=190 days total. 8 holidays; 10 days of vacation. We WILL make up the 7 days lost to strike.
This contract campaign began in the November of 2011, and concluded with a 7-day strike. This fight produced many wins—rom the right to appeal a rating, to language that gives teachers control over our own lesson plan format. Equally important, we stopped many harmful “reforms.” The district was forced to give up on merit pay, forced to accept steps, made to abandon a 7hr 40 minute teacher day, and gave ground on test-based evaluation. In fact, the Board began the bargaining process by proposing to cut our contract to just 30 pages. Despite the strike and broad public support there were some cuts that we could not stop, such as the move to a longer day and year, the elimination of Pension Enhancement (PEP), and stiffer penalties for low ratings.
Our schools still face a variety of threats—from understaffing and overtesting to charter competition and outright closure. While no contract can solve every problem, our Union is more united and in better position to face future challenges than it has been for many years. The provisions in this tentative agreement create new rights for CTU members and represent a step in the direction of a more assertive union that fights for good schools and good working conditions for our members.
Good for students AND teachers
- Forces Board to hire 512 additional “specials” teachers—art, music, phys ed etc. and create a plan to recruit “racially diverse candidates.”
- Stands up to testing hype: Evaluation formula won't fall below 70 percent “teacher practice” and allows teachers a neutral appeal of a rating;
- Creates an anti-bullying provision;
- Provides for teachers to get textbooks on day 1; clinicians to get adequate workspace
- Provides for $250 supplies reimbursement
- Board commits to hire nurses and social workers if it gets new revenue
- Establishes a 'workload' committee that will investigate Clinicians, Counselors, and Special Ed workloads
- Improves Teachers, Clinicians and PSRPs work lives
- Strengthens PPCs
- Guarantees lunch, daily preparation periods for clinicians and counselors
- New Right: 'just cause' discipline and mediation/arbitration in discipline cases; eliminates unpaid suspensions
- Paperwork reduction language—new paperwork shall be accompanied by a corresponding reduction of existing paperwork.
- Language that prohibits retaliation for asserting contract rights, including using benefits.
- Clerks will work three additional days with pay to prepare the office before school starts
- School clerks will be provided training in Kronos, attendance systems, and internal accounts during work hours.
- The Board shall not reclassify a Teacher Assistant to a Special Education Classroom Assistant who does not perform diapering and feeding
- 2013–14: Board will adopt a new evaluation plan for PSRPs in conjunction with the CTU—will form a PSRP Evaluation Committee
- Maintain Appendix I for PSRPs.
- Creates “CPS Hiring List”—at least 1/2 of all CPS hires must be displaced members.
- 10 months “true recall” to same school if position opens.
- Teachers “follow students” in closing, phase-out, and consolidation.
- Cuts layoff benefits to ½ former level (5 months RTP, 5 months Cadre for school closings, school actions.)
- Lay-off order (law in rest of state)=Unit, Certification, Unsats, PAT's by rating tier, Tenured Needs Improvement (<250, then >250) then all other tenured teachers by seniority.
- Limits CPS to 70 percent “teacher practice”/30 percent “student growth”—the minimum by state law.
- First year will be “no harmful consequences” for tenured teachers
- New Right: appeal rating to Neutral.
- 2 consecutive annual ratings of “Needs Improvement” without improvement becomes an Unsat. Improvement in either overall score OR teacher practice component is safe.
- Creates a “Clinicians Article”
- Clinicians workspace provisions for locking file cabinets, private space, etc.
- Special education teachers shall be provided time to meet with clinicians and other teachers during prep periods to discuss professional matters.
- In-service will be provided for those teachers and paras responsible for working with students with autism.
- Principals shall ensure that special education teachers are not assigned any duties not related to school special education services. Disputes about this may be brought to the PPC.
- Applies to all members who serve students with disabilities. Board-Union committee will design a workload plan by January 1, 2013. Members will be able to take complaints about workload size to the committee. The committee will have access to $500,000 to help alleviate large workloads.
- Members shall not be required to exceed case loads, class sizes, limits on ratios of students with disabilities to general education students and limits on ratios of students with disabilities to teachers and PSRPs as required under law.
- IEP meetings scheduled before or after school must be paid at hourly rate of pay.
- Test protocols and supplies will be provided for all SLPs and SLPPs.
- Maintained class size provisions from prior Agreement. Did not get enforceability, but did increase the funding for the Class Size Monitoring Panel.
- Added a parent LSC representative to Class Size Monitoring Panel. As the panel visits schools with class size issues, they must invite a Parent LSC rep to be a part of the process.
- Members must participate in Wellness program or face a $600 per covered member per year penalty ($50 per month).
- Wellness Plan administrators must follow all HIPPA laws and will not share individual member information with CPS. Aggregate data may be collected to help the LMCC make decisions.
- Members will not be penalized for health outcomes, only for nonparticipation. Members will be notified/warned before they are penalized for non-participation.
- Maternity benefits provided through Short Term Disability program.
- Paternity leave shall be modeled after the City of Chicago's paternity leave plan.
Pension pickup of 7 percent will be maintained.
- Old sick day banks are protected and can be used as they have always been used. They can be cashed out upon retirement.
- All employees will begin accruing a new sick bank, that accumulates up to 40 days totals. Cannot be cashed out, but may be used for pension service credits at retirement.
- Every employee now receives Short Term Disability (STD) benefits which can be utilized after the use of the sick days received that year: 100 percent pay first 30 days; 80 percent pay days 31-60; 60 percent pay days 61-90
- May be used for personal illness or maternity leave.
- Sick days may be used to supplement STD benefits to receive 100 percent pay.
Please read the above carefully. Other than the “victory” of hiring more special teachers (who would be dues-paying union members) and the “possibility” of hiring additional nurses and social workers (who would also be dues-paying union members), every item refers to the preservation of existing benefits, protecting existing working conditions and increasing salaries. There is not one thing to do with the needs and well-being of the kids that go to the public schools of Chicago. And points 4,8 and 9 from The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve are nowhere to be found.
The CTU, though, made sure that it thanked parents for being on its side during the strike. See the message to parents on the union web page.
How Well Do the Chicago Public Schools Do?
To place all this in context, let's see how well the Chicago Public Schools are doing and whether the parents of the children who go to those schools should have much to be thankful for.
Easy question—they are about as bad as money can buy. And nothing seems to make a difference. Over the course of the last two decades, the Chicago school system has been treated to a series of major “reforms.” Unfortunately, none seems to have made all that much of a difference.
- Graduation rates for nineteen year olds have improved from 48 percent for kids entering high school in 1991 to 66 percent for those entering in 2005; high school test scores have risen a bit so more students are graduating without a decline in average academic performance.
- Math scores have improved incrementally in the elementary/middle grades, while elementary/middle grade reading scores have remained fairly flat for two decades.
- State standards are pretty low. Therefore, “eighth grade students at the very top of the 'meets' category have only about a 60 percent chance” of being ready for college.
- Racial gaps in achievement have steadily increased, with White students making more progress than Latino students, and African American students falling behind all other groups. In 2010, only half of African-American male students had graduated.
- Despite progress, the vast majority of CPS students are at academic achievement levels that are far below what they need to graduate ready for college.
I am fully aware of how deeply flawed the various measures of student achievement are but I would suggest that the results shed light on a quite awful reality. And the victory in Chicago is unlikely to do much to change that awful reality.
It may be that the new bonds forged between teachers and parents and other community residents during the strike will create new opportunities. But we'll have to wait to see. Don't drink the champagne yet! It might be spiked.
-  One, not so significant, opposing view was expressed by the Socialist Equity Party, but that was mostly a reflection of more-Trotskyist-than-thou squabbles with the International Socialist Organization, which plays a prominent role in the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. ↩
-  Alone among the commentators, George Schmidt has highlighted the importance of negotiations over the “Management Rights” clause. It appears that the CTU did quite well in preserving the existing contract language which does include some restrictions on management prerogatives. What is noteworthy is how little attention the CTU leaders paid publicly to this issue. Perhaps they were concerned that it would shed too much light on how concerned they were to protect teacher prerogatives within the existing state of the schools. ↩
-  It is noteworthy that Substance strongly supported approval of the contract. Indeed, one of its editors made the motion to approve at the second House of Delegates meeting. From the account in Substance: “But the questions had barely begun when the associate delegate from Steinmetz High School, Sharon Schmidt (Substance editor) asked if a motion were in order. When Karen Lewis responded that it was, Schmidt read from the agenda proposed by the leadership: ‘The Officers recommend that the Chicago Teachers Union suspend the ongoing strike at the close of this House of Delegates meeting. The strike, picketing, and job actions will cease, and Chicago Teachers Union members will return to work on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.’” ↩
-  The fundamentally bureaucratic character of the language is striking. David Graeber has discussed the violence of bureaucracy. I think it would be especially valuable if we could better understand the relationship between the bureaucratic violence perpetrated by the Chicago Public Schools and the street violence that endangers so many of Chicago’s young people. See David Graeber, “Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity.” ↩
-  To the best of my knowledge, the agreement to hire more “special” teachers was already in place before the strike. ↩
-  These are the findings of researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. See “Trends in Chicago’s Schools across Three Eras of Reform: Summary of Key Findings.” ↩