When Chicago teachers walked out of their classrooms in 2012, they were protesting a slate of austerity measures and “reforms” they believed would erode worker protections and make the city yet another charter-school haven. Eight days into the longest Chicago teachers strike in a generation, their employers—Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—declared defeat, agreeing to annual raises and de-emphasizing at least a portion of the teacher evaluations that would have been based on standardized test scores.
But after four years of continued budget cuts, school closings, and a new Republican governor, Chicago’s teachers will be back on the streets again today. Their strike will only last one day, but the action’s brevity will be more than compensated for by the large and diverse coalition of workers and activists who will join them, turning the strike into a broader effort to protect worker rights against a hostile state government.
Though the school district and Governor Bruce Rauner have called the strike illegal, the teachers will be joined not only by other labor groups, but also activists involved in the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as university faculty whose schools will close because of a nine-month budget impasse Rauner has insisted on, which has tied up funding for a myriad of state services and higher education.
It is this coalition of seemingly disparate groups that has the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten declaring Friday to be an exceptional day in labor history. “This is not a traditional strike,” she says. The participation of so many seemingly disparate groups, she adds, underscores the common threads of economic and social injustices targeted by these distinct movements. “At the end of the day, you solve education problems by solving economic problems.”
The immediate issues behind the strike concern working conditions, a $200 million budget cut, and CPS’s insistence that teachers contribute a higher portion of their salaries to their pensions and health-care plans. The Chicago Teachers Union says this effectively amounts to a 7 percent pay cut. Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has said such moves are necessary to meet a $1.1 billion operating deficit.
Yet union leaders and activists say they want to send a message that transcends the immediate points of contention at the negotiating table. The broader issue is the anti-union “Turnaround Agenda” that venture-capitalist-turned-governor Rauner has pushed since assuming office last year, and which he has insisted the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature must enact before it passes a budget he’ll sign—whence the state’s long budget-less impasse. Unionists and activists both contend that Rauner’s cost cuts and insistence on peeling away at worker protections hurt the most vulnerable in the state.
Angel Mitchell, a McDonald’s worker and Fight for 15 activist, plans to walk off her job on Friday with ten co-workers.
“I have nothing to lose,” she says. A resident of Chicago’s South Side and recent University of Illinois at Chicago graduate, Mitchell says the Chicago Teachers Union’s message resonates deeply with her and other low-wage earners.
“The governor’s refusal to fund schools is affecting the entire public. It affects public services as well as public colleges,” she says.
She adds: “The governor is receiving funding from billionaires, while the working people are losing. So this is a historic moment in our city and our state, where different people from all walks of life and areas of employment are coming together because this is an issue of funding and there’s a crisis right now.”
That crisis couldn’t be more imminent for Bob Bionaz, a professor of history at Chicago State University and the faculty union’s president. For months, his college was hanging by a thread as the state’s budget impasse held up the school’s funding. This week, every faculty member and administrator received a pink slip.
“We’re having a rally with the Chicago Teachers Union, because what we see going on in Springfield is not necessarily an attack on public higher education; it’s an attack on public education in general,” says Bionaz.
He lays much of his frustrations on the governor specifically, and compares Rauner to Wisconsin’s very own union-busting governor, Scott Walker.
“But this is not Wisconsin,” Bionaz says. “You’re not going to be able to push an anti-labor agenda. To attempt to do that is foolish.”
City and state officials have been blaming one another for the walkout. Rauner, who continues to insist that his labor reforms be included in any budget bill that comes to his desk, has blamed CPS’s woes on the state’s General Assembly (the legislature’s lower house) and the Democrats who hold majorities in both chambers.
The governor also pushed back during a middle school visit this week against the idea that more progressive taxation might yield the funds to help a district like Chicago’s, or that school district funding should be equalized across the state. “What I don’t support is taking money from one school district and giving it to another … robbing Peter to pay Paul—not the answer,” he said. Those comments were made in Wilmette, a wealthy Chicago suburb where the median income is two and a half times that of the city.
Chicago Mayor Emanuel, meanwhile, has taken a much more subdued tone than he did four years ago, and has attributed blame to the state government. After his own bruising battle with CTU in 2012, overseeing the closure of nearly 50 schools in 2015, and appointing a series of embattled Chicago Public Schools CEOs, Emanuel is no darling of the Chicago Teachers Union. He has also been the target of the city’s Black Lives Matter activists, who blamed him and other officials for the cover-up of Laquan McDonald’s shooting last fall. Unsurprisingly, Emanuel has shifted the spotlight to the governor for this current round of cutbacks.
“I do believe that Springfield will step up significantly, not for just Chicago, but for kids in the state of Illinois,” he said recently. “They have enough headwinds, they shouldn’t have the state adversely affect them.”
All these government officials have focused on the strike’s impact on the 350,000 or so children in Chicago’s K-12 system. The Chicago Public Schools CEO Claypool had the sharpest words for the union.
“This is unlawful,” he said. “It shows a disrespect for the law and a disrespect for the students.” CTU officials have pointed out that the state’s labor relations board has the final say.
Weingarten, without responding to any particular official’s comments, says the well-being of students goes hand in hand with the well-being of their parents.
“I always find it incredibly ironic that, in the same breath, they’ll say we need to help our kids, yet they won’t help their parents have a decent job or a decent wage or a decent living,” she says.
Teachers, activists, and labor leaders alike hope to relay this message during Friday’s rallies. They will initially come together at varying times and locations, with goals and objectives as diverse as the neighborhoods from which they’ll begin their march. But that diffusion—in space and objectives—won’t last. As the day progresses, many groups will converge on a single location downtown: the governor’s Chicago offices.
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