Chicago Strike Lessons: Teacher Activists Explain How it was Done
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Chicago's students and teachers returned to their classrooms last Wednesday, having taught us all some valuable lessons. I spent some time this summer with a couple of teacher activists from the big city, Xian Barrett and Adam Heenan, and they were clear about what was giving them strength. This strike action was not a whim. It was carefully built from the ground up. Today we will take a look at what we can learn from their experience.
In many cities across the country, our unions have practically taken the strike off the table. It is not considered possible, because leaders fear the public will not be supportive. This is easy to understand, because the public has been fed a barrage of anti-union messages for the past few decades. Teacher unions, the largest organized block of workers left, have been the focus of special scorn.
Chicago was no exception to this pattern. President Obama's former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is the epitome of the strong, well-connected mayor. The Chicago Sun Times was largely supportive when he moved to extend the school day, and tie 40% of teacher evaluations to test scores. Chicago has long been a hotbed of experimental reforms, leading the way with school closures under then-CEO Arne Duncan.
The billionaire-sponsored "non-profits" had played their parts as well. Stand For Children's Jonah Edelman made it clear in his talk at Aspen a year ago that the law they pushed through the state legislature was aimed at preventing Chicago teachers from ever going on strike again. It did this by requiring 75% of the members to vote in favor of a strike - and in the past, this sort of supermajority had never been achieved.
So how did the teachers in Chicago pull off the most successful strike of the new century?
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman interviewed Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis this week, and asked her about a quote from Bruce Rauner, a pro-charter venture capitalist. Rauner said:
The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They're not the same thing. ... The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things--get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That's what they're paid to do. They're not about the students. They're not about results. They're not about the taxpayers.
...we purposely tried to change the culture of union so that the union is about education, is about empowering teachers and paraprofessionals and clinicians. And as a result, the union officers took pay cuts, significant pay cuts, so that we can have an organizing department, so that we can have a research department, so that we didn't do the union the way the old union was done, because those days are over, because then people like Bruce Rauner can separate the union from the teachers. And this is where they're wrong. They're absolutely wrong, and they acted that way the entire time, because they didn't understand what we were really doing, which was organizing our members, not about the whole--yes, we have to negotiate for whatever, but that's not our main focus.
So our main focus is trying to make education better, because we feel like we can solve some of the problems. The longer school day was a hot, buttery mess until we sat down with them and said, "OK, look, you can't afford to pay us this entire length of day, because the arbitrator told you that, so here's a way to figure this out by staffing up so that you can save some money." We actually brought that to the board, because they were clueless. They were absolutely clueless in trying to figure out the problem. We're teachers. We're problem solvers. And for--Bruce Rauner has to remember, I'm two years out of the classroom, so, for me, not a bureaucratic union hack. Sorry, that tag just won't hang on us.
This was borne out when the vote to authorize a strike was taken, 98% of those casting ballots - 90% of the teachers, voted in favor. The teachers were united.
After the strike began, teacher Xian Barrett wrote a powerful essay; "Why I'm Striking," which was widely read.
An excerpt from Xian's post:
I wanted to educate (Chicago schools CEO) Mr. Brizard about what it means to "help or hurt our kids".
When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.
When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.
When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.
When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there's no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids.
Once again, Xian showed that Chicago teachers were putting students first.
I asked Xian and Adam to share a bit about how teachers there laid the groundwork for their action.
How was the unity of the teachers accomplished? How did you build that capacity to act as one?
In the CTU we have the best case democratic process possible. We have a reform leadership (from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators - CORE) that is focused on student issues and community ties rather than just traditional bread and butter union issues. That group was elected with a strong mandate from the membership. During the election, the incumbents actually accused the CORE caucus of "diluting" members' voices and power in favor of working with community and parent groups. We embraced that portrayal and the membership responded overwhelmingly to support that approach in the election two years ago.
The corporate reformers say they want to work with teachers willing to put students at the center and we called their bluff -- that is exactly what we did. Their response has been to try to make us the most vilified group of educators in the country.
People don't have to take my word for it. We still lack ac, we still have overcrowded classrooms, and classrooms without teachers. We are still fighting for good learning conditions for students.
We won some important things that people haven't heard much about, but that you know are important if you ever worked at a school. We won the right for social workers and nurses and psychologists to have a private space to work w students in the school. Prior to this, the psychologist would have to meet with kids in a cubicle, with no privacy. Funding was also allocated for 600 teachers of PE, art and music, which pushes back on the narrowing of education in our schools. (see a comprehensive summary of what was won here.)
How did you build support from the community and parents?
The key was to start by listening, rather than talking about what we want. We built relationships by listening. To understand conditions students were learning in and what changes parents wanted and identified issues we could collaborate on. The most obvious one was school closings. Nobody was in favor of the closings, but groups were fragmented. Over four years we built movement that started out as pushback vs school closings, but turned into a rich conversation about what good, equitable education is. It is very important that we focus not only on what is wrong with corporate reform and school closures, but also on the positive side, what do parents and kids want out of their schools.
(These insights into how to improve schools were woven into the CTU's powerful report released in February; "The Schools Chicago Students Deserve." This report spelled out specific improvements in learning conditions that became key demands in the strike.)
Adam Heenen shared how this support was maintained during the strike:
We relied on social media and pamphlets to help inform them of what we were doing and why. The parents have our back. We first leafleted last spring at the report-card pick-up day. Over the summer we went door-to-door asking for signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to be able to elect our school board. On Thursday of the picket we spent 3 hrs going door-to-door in our communities as striking union teachers, but also as neighbors, voters, parents, and taxpayers.
How did the media respond during the process? Was there a point at which their coverage shifted?
There was a lot of media that did not understand the issues very well. Some were tied to corporate reform, but many of them simply had no prior connections to the schools.
As the strike began, there were two shifts. Grassroots media action was key - dozens of classroom teachers and parents were out there speaking up, and they were passionate and knowledgeable. They started getting heard on the airwaves. And because we were on strike, we had more time to do this.
There was another shift, when the house of CTU delegates decided to stay on strike for two additional days in order to give the members time to review the proposal. The reformers have an advantage in this regard -- they do not have to go back and discuss things with a constituency. They can make instant decisions. That is much harder when we have to consult with 30,000 people, and make sure they agree when a big decision is made.
Adam Heenan adds,
We kept our message on teaching and learning conditions, and after about two days we started seeing more and more CTU-positive messaging, even in the second-largest paper. Radio and long-form media was better at featuring discussion on the complex issues than was news clips in the mainstream press. We have always relied heavily on social media and a couple weeks prior, the CTU Social Media Coordinator Kenzo Shibata produced a 30 min "expose" on Mayor Emanuel's connection to the Tea Party and Big Money Ed Reformers.Where would you advise others who might want to follow your lead to start?
Bring together people passionate about education, teachers, parents, friends, start getting organized. It is not enough to organize people to pushback - we have to figure out how to create an empowering school system. It's a massive undertaking but we are the ones who know best how to do it.
What do you think? What have you learned from watching what happened in Chicago? How do you think this might affect teachers in other areas?
The photo is by Paulette Franklin, mother of the cheerleader being tossed skyward at a Chicago support rally. It is used with her permission.