Are Chicago Teachers Headed Toward a Strike?

A three-cornered battle between a budget-slashing mayor (Rahm Emanuel), a union-busting governor (Bruce Rauner) and determined teachers (CTU) could result this fall in the second public school strike in Chicago in four years.

CTU members protestAt the center of the battle is an effort to force Chicago teachers to pay the equivalent of 7 per cent of their base pay in additional pension costs, reversing an agreement made with the Chicago Teachers Union in lieu of a raise. “If the Board of Education imposes a 7 per cent slash in our salaries, we will move to strike,” Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said at an August 8 press conference.

The school district also upped the ante by announcing 1,000 layoffs and further budget cuts that will squeeze special education and force principals to eliminate jobs.

All indicators point to a teachers’ strike in the fall. But the political landscape has changed since the CTU won a 2012 strike through rock-solid picket lines, mass protests and widespread popular support. This time around, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has seen his approval ratings plummet in the wake of police killings of African Americans, has dropped the confrontational rhetoric.

Instead, he’s using the state budget impasse created by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as a pretext to force teachers to accept a pay cut in the form of covering a higher share of their pension costs. Taxpayers will pay $250-million more to fund school pensions, Emanuel argues, so it’s time for teachers to pay their share.

What the mayor omits is the fact that the pension crisis was created by the school district’s failure to make pension contributions over the course of a decade. As CTU Staff Coordinator Jackson Potter wrote, “Not only are teachers and paraprofessionals taxpayers who will share in the burden of increased property taxes, but we have seen mass layoffs, program reductions, pay freezes, furlough days and a general lack of regard for the needs of our classrooms.”

Deliberate Underfunding

The CTU has been working under an extension of the previous contract won in 2012 for more than a year. The union organized a one-day strike April 1 to send the message that teachers and Chicago school students shouldn’t have to pay for Rauner’s budget crisis – and they won widespread solidarity, particularly from other educators and public-sector workers.

The action got some movement in the state legislature, which reached an agreement with Rauner to authorize $215-million to fund Chicago teachers’ pensions. But that is well short of the money needed to cover the pension shortfall created by years of the school districts’ failure to meet its required payments into the fund.

Plus, in August, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced a $5.75-billion budget that’s “balanced” only because it assumes the CTU will accept massive concessions and that the state legislature will direct funds to cover the gaps. The budget – along with the layoffs – was crafted to pressure the union into making the concessions under the guise of “shared sacrifice.”

“The state stepped up,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool told reporters. “Our local taxpayers stepped up. CPS has stepped up. We need the teachers to be part of the solution to protect their own jobs and pensions, but also to protect our kids and to show good faith to those hard-working taxpayers who are sacrificing for them and our schools.”

Claypool’s rhetoric shows the city is better prepared than Emanuel’s bluster the last time around. But in reality, CPS is, as the CTU say, “broke on purpose.” Its budget has been steadily drained by support for nonunion charter schools, big interest payments to bondholders for debts run up over years of mismanagement, and politically motivated spending to grease the gears of the Democratic Party machine – such as a nearly $1-billion bond deal for capital spending amid the budget crisis. As the news agency Reuters noted, “Escalating pension payments, drained reserves and debt dependency have pushed CPS’s credit ratings to junk.”

But with Rauner trying to engineer the bankruptcy of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in order to shred the CTU contract, Emanuel is betting that he can sell the public and at least some CTU members on the idea that City Hall’s austerity program and pay cuts are the only other alternative. The mayor is relying on longtime Chicago Democratic machine operative Claypool, who took over CPS in the wake of a corruption scandal that took down the previous schools chief.

Claypool’s angle is to intimidate teachers with layoffs, budget cuts and threats of worse to come unless the CTU accepts a concessionary contract. The latest ploy is to drive a wedge between the CTU and the public by blaming teachers for a recent increase in property taxes.

Meanwhile, the city’s main newspaper, the Chicago Tribune – which denounced the CTU’s one-day strike on April 1 as a “tantrum” – keeps hammering away at the CTU for refusing to put a concessionary contract proposed at the beginning of the year to a vote. Though it’s a shadow of what used to be called the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” the Tribune is maintaining its tradition as the anti-labour, red-baiting mouthpiece of Chicago’s capitalist class, casting the CTU in the villain’s role once reserved for railroad strikers, steelworkers and militant packinghouse unions.

Class Allies?

Given the stakes in this fight – not just for the CTU, but for organized labour in general and public-sector unions in particular – one might expect that Chicago unions would be mobilizing, too. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Despite the collapse in Emanuel’s popularity, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) has kept virtually silent on the mayor’s latest attack on the CTU, apparently because the building trade unions and key Teamsters locals are clinging to the old Democratic Party machine practice of trading campaign contributions in exchange for jobs in real estate development, public works and the like.

But unions in Chicago and Illinois have also been avoiding a confrontation with Bruce Rauner, despite the governor’s program of cutting workers compensation and implementing anti-union “right-to-work” type laws at the local level. In fact, AFSCME, the state’s largest public-sector union, has been lobbying for legislation that would eliminate its own right to strike – a move aimed at preventing Rauner from provoking a strike or imposing a contract on state employees.

Thus, the CTU finds itself heading into a possible strike with few high-profile labour allies, with important exceptions such as SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana.

To break out of this isolation and organize the kind of support it experienced in the 2012 strike, the CTU will need to build on its previous efforts to take up political causes and fight around wider working-class issues. In doing so, it will be useful for teachers and their supporters to assess the lessons of that experience – both positive and negative.

A central factor in the CTU strike victory in 2012 was the union’s months-long campaign to take up issues of race and class in the city of Chicago. In its report, The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve, CTU researchers demonstrated how poverty, inequality and segregation created “apartheid schools” that constrained the opportunities for a student population that is overwhelming African American and Latino.

While most of these issues were outside the mandatory subjects for collective bargaining and were not directly addressed in the contract settlement, the CTU made it clear to parents and working-class Chicago that they were fighting not only to preserve decent jobs for teachers, but also to defend public education.

The CTU sounded the same themes the following year, when Emanuel and then-schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett ordered the closure of some 50 schools for supposed lack of capacity. The level of activism in the union and community in that 2013 fight was significant, but wasn’t great enough to pressure Emanuel’s African American and Latino allies on the City Council to break with the mayor.

Electoral Efforts

In the aftermath of that defeat, the CTU deepened its involvement in Chicago Democratic politics, with unhappy results.

In 2014, the union backed then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for reelection, despite Quinn’s anti-union policies and his choice of union-busting former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas as his running mate.

The following year, several CTU members ran for seats in City Council, one as an independent – and one was elected as a Democrat. The centerpiece of the effort was the union’s support for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for mayor after CTU President Lewis’ illness prevented her from making a widely expected electoral challenge to Emanuel. Surprisingly, Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, forced Emanuel into a second-round runoff, humiliating one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party. But if CTU members expected Garcia to take up their demands to tax the rich and boost social spending, they were disappointed.

In a televised debate with Emanuel, Garcia made a point of announcing that if elected, he, like Emanuel, would impose austerity budgets on the city that would hurt working people. “I’m going to tell the unions a lot of bad news because the situation is so dire,” said Garcia. “Who’s going to be upset? Probably the unions who are supporting me now.”

While the CTU hasn’t provided a centralized accounting of the money it spent on the Garcia campaign and other electoral efforts, the sums were no doubt considerable, and elections took time and energy away from enforcing the union’s collective bargaining agreement and preparing for the next contract fight.

Nevertheless, the union did maintain its focus on the wider social and political issues – crucially, lending support to Black Lives Matter movement organizations when nearly every other union tried to avoid the controversy.

When a judge ordered the Emanuel administration to release the video of the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the CTU supported an emergency Black Friday protest, sending a recorded phone message to all 28,000 union members on Thanksgiving Day to urge them to participate.

The CTU later invited Black Lives Matter organizations to participate in the April 1 strike and rally, and then stood up to a subsequent backlash from the Fraternal Order of Police after a speaker from the movement criticized the cops for killing and brutalizing African Americans.

Working Class Radicalization

Contract negotiations, however, have remained difficult. In January, CPS negotiators presented what CTU President Lewis called a “serious offer” that contained numerous concessions. But the CTU’s big bargaining team – an appointed body of rank-and-file teachers that includes most of the union’s executive board – voted against submitting the deal to the wider membership. Since then, the CTU has been reviving the strike preparation methods it used in 2012 – with the successful April 1 strike an important step forward.

The complicated legal restrictions on the CTU’s ability to strike would have allowed a walkout in the closing weeks of the school year, but union leaders decided not to seek a strike authorization vote, since action at that point could have played into Emanuel’s – and Rauner’s – hands.

The CTU apparently calculated that it was better to spend the summer and opening weeks of the next school year to organize among members and build community support. In fact, the layoff of 1,000 CTU members over the summer may well have been intended as a provocation to push the union to strike prematurely.

But for all the aggressive attacks by Rauner and Emanuel and the unavoidable confrontation ahead, there are several elements in this struggle that are favorable to the CTU. For one, the union membership, rather than cowed by the layoffs and budget cuts, is increasingly angry over the systematic attacks on their pay and the integrity of their jobs. Those feelings are shared by countless teachers across the U.S., evidenced by a successful teachers’ strike in Seattle and teacher job actions in Detroit over the past year.

Moreover, reform union leaders have been elected to run locals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark and other cities. The national teachers’ unions have taken note, shifting their rhetoric away from collaboration with corporate school reform and toward more traditional union militancy.

The most important factor in favor of the CTU, however, is the wider working-class radicalization that found expression in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

Four years ago, the CTU’s efforts to expose the diversion of public taxes to business developments, known as TIFs, seemed obscure. The same was true of the union’s demands that the big banks renegotiate interest rate deals with Chicago schools to take advantage of record low rates. A proposal for a tax on financial transactions seemed like an outlier, too.

But in the wake of the Sanders campaign, these demands are suddenly part of the mainstream political debate – despite Hillary Clinton’s shift back to the right to court Republicans in the general election. The CTU’s demands to tax the rich to pay for public education will resonate with working people in Chicago and beyond.

Just as important, the continued police killing of Black youths has fueled working-class discontent across the city. By continuing to support Black Lives Matter protests, the CTU can make a critical link between the lack of funding for schools and the lack of economic opportunities for Black working-class youths.

If the past is any indication, building on those alliances – and others besides – will be critical to the union’s strike strategy. The coming showdown may well be tougher and longer than the 2012 strike. But in the face of the attacks from the governor and the mayor, the CTU has a choice: Either accept a deal that would roll back decades of progress or step up to the union’s biggest battle in more than a generation. •

This article first appeared on Socialist Worker.

Lee Sustar is the labour editor for Socialist Worker.