In Chicago, organization + mobilization + education = victory

Students and teachers returned to Chicago public schools on Wednesday the day after the Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body, the House of Delegates, voted overwhelmingly to suspend their strike.

Union members will now have the opportunity to review and vote on the tentative agreement that the Chicago Public Schools and the union reached over the weekend.

The union did not achieve everything that it set out to accomplish in the negotiations for a new contract, but the tentative agreement appears to be a big victory for public education and the teachers.

“We feel very positive about moving forward,” said Karen Lewis, president of the CTU. “We feel grateful that we have a united union, and that when a union moves together, amazing things happen.”

The agreement includes some of the “better school day” proposals that the union was seeking. Lewis told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now that one of the objectives of the “better school days” is to create “a broad, rich curriculum for all of our students.”

As part of the agreement, Chicago Public School management agreed to hire 600 additional teachers to teach art, music, world languages, physical education, and other courses. Concerned parents have been fighting for this curriculum enhancement for more than a year.

The agreement also commits the Chicago Public Schools to hire more nurses, social workers, and counselors to provide wrap around services to students, especially those living in low-income neighborhoods. The hiring of these educational professionals is contingent on available funding, but the CTU has proposed several possible funding sources including the Tax Increment Financing program, which the city uses to fund public improvements.

Teachers also won some important improvements that will help foster a better teaching environment. They defeated Mayor Emanuel’s so-called merit pay proposal and maintained a pay system that rewards experience and advanced degrees.

Combining increases in base and longevity pay, teacher pay will increase by about 17 percent during the next four years.

The agreement also retains the current employee health care benefit, ensures that Chicago schools hire a racially diverse teaching force, provides more job security, establishes a right to recall for laid off teachers when positions become available, reduces teacher paper work, and gives teachers more control over their lesson plans.

Mayor Emanuel sought to make standardized test scores a bigger percentage of teacher evaluations, but the union held the percentage to the minimum required by state law.

Members of the House of Delegates seemed pleased with the agreement; 98 percent of the delegates voted to suspend the strike and send the agreement to union members for review and approval.

The teachers’ victory was made possible by a high degree of member unity and support from parents and the community. The unity and outside support was made possible by a strategy that emphasized organization, mobilization, and education.

Organization: Lewis is a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) that came to power two years ago when Lewis was elected president. “We wanted to empower our rank and file teachers so that the real work of unions is in the (school) buildings, not downtown offices,” Lewis told Goodman. “We wanted to change from a service model to an organizing model, so that people can feel empowered to do what’s best for the students.”

One of the things that the union did to empower teachers was to create a Big Bargaining Team that gave more members a first-hand look at the bargaining process and made it more transparent.

The new leadership also revitalized the House of Delegates, which is composed of nearly 800 representatives of all the schools and buildings where CTU members work. The union leadership channeled information about bargaining issues through the delegates to educators on the job to keep them informed about the issues.

These channels also offered members a way to give their leaders feedback about what was important to them.

These open lines of communication helped build the unity that gave the union its power. They helped win an overwhelming percentage of members–98 percent–to authorize a strike. They helped make the mobilizations that demonstrated the union’s power both before and during the strike so successful.

Mobilization: The large rallies were the most visible form that the mobilizations took, but there were other kinds that were just as important. For example, members canvassed neighborhoods talking directly to parents and residents about what the union was trying to accomplish.

This door to door, grassroots mobilization had a lot to do with countering Mayor Emmanuel’s media campaign against the teachers. Polls showed that parents supported the strike and its goals by a substantial percentage.

Education: The union made every effort to provide members with information about the issues that led to the strike. They did the same for parents and the community.

Well before the strike began, the union’s research team produced a report that laid out the union’s vision of what a better public education would look like. The report, entitled The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, helped define the goals of strike as a fight for better schools rather than just a fight for better pay and benefits.

While the strike appears to be over, the fight to improve public education in Chicago continues. The union has made it clear that it will continue to work with students and parents to stop school closures that have enraged communities all over Chicago.

While Mayor Emanuel has tried to put his best face forward on the new agreement, members of the CTU House of Delegates clearly thought that tentative agreement was a big win for teachers and for the working class communities they serve.

“We’ve gained dignity and respect for our profession and for our school communities,” said Garth Liebhaber, a fifth grade teacher to Democracy Now. “We’ve gained unionism and what it means for working people. This is about returning power to where it belongs–to the working people and the communities that they serve.”

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