Chicago teachers strike wins and loses

For the first time in my life and for the sixth day, I stood on strike by the high school where I teach.  On August 31, for the first time in seventeen years, I wore red to support the Chicago Teachers Union.  A few months before that, I gave my vote to authorize a strike; I belong to the over 90% of union members who voted “Yes.”

I’m still on the picket line because, at yesterday’s CTU meeting, even though 220 delegates voted to return to work today, 350 delegates voted not to.

So I stood on the sidewalk today thinking.   As the second Monday of our strike continues, as we wait to hear if an injunction against the strike will force us back to work, as we wait for the Tuesday meeting where delegates vote again in favor or against continuing the strike, I ask myself, “What have good teachers gained from striking?  And what have we lost?”

 1. Good teachers gained an understanding of why we are here.

Quite simply, we are here because of our mayor, Rahm Emanuel.  In a previous post, I wrote that when Emanuel came into office, he began a fight bigger than his ego.  From the start, he insulted teachers, minimized what we do, and imposed questionable education leaders and school reform.  Unlike our previous mayor who served twenty-two years and understood the invisible politics of our city, Emanuel is blind.  Mayor Emanuel underestimated the force of organized labor.  I don’t know if any political machine can repair the damage he’s done to himself.

We got to this point because Mayor Emanuel pushed for Senate Bill 7, which changed teachers’ negotiating powers, strike conditions, teacher evaluation, and the length of our school day.  Illinois Education Association’s SB7 fact sheet outlines the changes. SB7 requires 75% of CTU members to authorize a strike; over 90% of us voted in favor last spring.

Last night, Mayor Emanuel argued that we are beyond our negotiating power; therefore, our strike is illegal.  Catalyst Chicago Tweeted CPS’s press release about the injunction today, which specifies that SB7 “expressly prohibits the CTU from striking over noneconomic issues, such as layoff and recall policies, teacher evaluations, class sizes and the length of the school day and year. The CTU’s repeated statements and recent advertising campaign,” CPS argues, “have made clear that these are exactly the subjects over which the CTU is striking.”  A judge will consider this Wednesday.

Our CTU President contributed to our situation, too.  In a press conferencemade available online April 2011, President Lewis referred to SB7 as “historic” and said she had to “love the process” (she speaks at 17:46).  She said that the conversations leading up to SB7 allowed for “ideology to meet reality.”  She said, “If all bills work like this, it’s gotta be a good thing.”  When she returned to the CTU House of Delegates, however, they disagreed.  A couple of weeks after that press conference, CTU released a statement demanding changes.  It was too late.  SB7 became law soon after.

2. Good teachers, however, lost lots of public support.

Mayor Emanuel is not a likable guy.  But neither is President Karen Lewis many times.  While Lewis had the power to unify and mobilize 30,000 of us, she failed to secure the public’s trust.  At press conferences, Lewis comes off antagonistic.  Someone who worked with Lewis as a teacher described her to me as “bombastic.”  And in front of the mic, she is.

Two Sundays ago, Lewis and CTU failed to give us and the public clear, specific, and repeatable demands.  At the September 9 press conference announcing the strike, Lewis told a reporter not to prioritize the issues she presented.  CTU succeeded in making this strike inclusive but failed by making it vague.

Early last week, one colleague’s doorman told her he remembers the 1987 teachers’ strike: “Oh, parents will support you the first few days,” the doorman said.  “Then they’ll turn on you.”  Last night when the strike was extended, many did.

Emanuel coined “strike of choice” and used it regularly.  Now, his office is using “delay of choice.”  It’s sticking.  And CTU is stuck trying to regain public support.  If we had gone back to the classroom today, we would have secured it.  Emanuel would have remained the bad guy in all of this.  Now, Chicago Public Schools teachers don’t look so good either.

3. Good teachers realized the importance of their teacher voice.

Good teachers should be responsible for making decisions that directly affect our profession and our students.  Business people can contribute financial decisions.  But when it comes to the classroom, good teachers need to be involved.  So many conflicting priorities fall on us from the area, district, state, and D.C. offices that we must shout: “STOP!  Let a good teacher tell you what’s working and what’s not.”

CTU mobilized us to flood local parks and downtown streets.  Too many of us, however, are hiding inside our red t-shirts and silencing ourselves.   I keep hearing, “We have to remain united.  We can’t show any weakness.”  We’re afraid of someone thinking differently.  When did thinking differently make a person weak?

In last week’s post, I invited all CPS teachers to explain why they teach.  I wanted to combat the negative advertising against us.  Over eight hundred people read the post in only a few days.  Over two hundred “liked” it.  I’m thinking a good chunk of them were teachers.  Yet less than ten teachers used their teacher voice to post a response in our defense.

Last Wednesday on B96, two striking teachers used their teacher voices to compete for a Girls Night Out cruise on Lake Michigan.  The callers expressed how stressed out they were from striking and how they needed a chance to party with the B96 crew and a mob of their friends.  One of the striking teachers won the right to party.  We cannot use our teacher voices against us.

As with all professions, we have a small percentage of ineffective professionals.  Good teachers know who the bad teachers are.  We need to help each other grow.  But we also need to be professional enough to use our teacher voice and say to a colleague, “This is not the right profession for you.”

With the strike, we proved that school reform is needed.  Parents, more than ever, want a seat at the table.  Two parents started their own organization: Chicago Students First.

The reforms, however, are complicated.  More picketing won’t make reform happen overnight or gain us the respect we need to lead these.  Isn’t that what we really want—respect?

We united.  We defended our profession.  We used our strike to negotiate a reasonable agreement in tough economic times.  If CTU could have gotten a better contract, I believe they would have.

With my teacher voice I’ll quote a mayor who sadly passed away during his administration.  Mayor Harold Washington at his 1983 inauguration repeated, simply, what Chicagoans needed to hear then and what we need to say now—“Let’s go to work.”

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