Into Week Two, a Slightly Subdued Strike

(AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

Today, the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) principal decision-making body, the 700-member House of Delegates, will vote on ending the strike that erupted last week over teacher evaluations, re-hiring of laid-off teachers, and pay negotiations over the teachers’ contract that expired July 1. If the delegates vote to end the strike, Chicago schoolchildren will return to class on Wednesday, and an approval of the contract should be within sight. If it does not, Chicago teachers will stay on the picket line, and will likely face a new round of attacks from the mayor’s office.

The strike’s segue into a second week surprised many Chicagoans, who thought public school students would return to class on Monday. But after a Sunday vote, union leaders announced they needed more time to go through the specifics of the proposed contract.

“We haven’t heard enough,” says Jill Bates, who has taught Head Start at Yates Elementary on the near Northwest Side for 32 years. “I haven’t seen what we need for our schools yet. We haven’t gotten anything for the children.”

It’s a move that risks eroding the widespread public support for the union that has grown since the strike began. Last week was all about the union positioning itself as the defender of quality education for all children in the city of Chicago, with a strike as the only way to achieve goals like reduced class sizes, air conditioning in classrooms, preventing closures of neighborhood schools, and a reduced reliance on evaluations based on standardized tests. That emphasis paid off, with multiple polls finding that Chicagoans support the striking teachers over Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

On Monday, the union still emphasized its commitment to equal education, but had to shift to a focus on democracy for rank-and-file teachers, trying to publicly make the case that the continued massive inconvenience for CPS students and their parents was justified by the necessity for all of the teachers to have sufficient time to read and absorb the contract proposals. It’s easier for parents to see their scramble for childcare or hours lost at work as justified as part of a fight for better education for their kids; it’s harder to convince them that their kids should stay out of school so teachers have time to read a contract.

Luckily for the teachers, they were aided by Mayor Emanuel’s ill-advised decision to file for an injunction declaring the strike illegal to compel the teachers back to work. The decision to pursue an injunction was questionable on multiple levels, not least of which is strategic: it plays perfectly into the CTU’s characterization of Emanuel as unnecessarily hostile and combative with teachers since he took office last year—a “bully,” as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has called him multiple times. On Monday, a judge declined to rule immediately on the injunction, setting a hearing date for Wednesday morning. (The House of Delegates votes on ending the strike Tuesday night.)

Chicago Public School parents have mixed feelings about the continuation of the strike, which has kept students out of school for over a week, but most seem to oppose the mayor’s injunction. “We all wanted the schools back open—teachers, parents. But I don’t blame them for staying out,” says Maria Torres, the mother of an eight-year-old daughter who attend Galileo Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood.

She was not worried that the public will turn against the strike.

“I think the public has been thirsting for this kind of fight from unions, one that’s connected to communities. They know our schools are starved,” she said.

Near Lake Michigan in the far North Side neighborhood of Edgewater, Veronique Rackliff walked near a playground with her two children, Pia and Maximo. She took off a day of work as a social worker at a hospital because of the strike. “I support [the teachers], but couldn’t they do this some other way?” But she strongly opposed the injunction. “I really don’t agree with that,” she said.

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