Regarding the Chicago Teacher’s Union Strike: It’s not about the money! (But if it is so what?)

On Monday, the Chicago Teacher’s Union officially went on strike. It is the largest teacher’s union strike in over 20 years, and represents a huge event. Chicago’s school district is the 3rd largest in the country, representing 600 schools, 26,000 teachers, and 400000 students. It is also an event potentially rife with political consequences, as Rahm Emanuel is Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff. Obama got his start in Chicago. Chicago is a testing ground for many of the most prominent education reform proposals in American education.

Like many unions, the Chicago Teacher’s Union traditionally has been run by leaders who were largely in bed with the city leadership and corporate leadership who has been eager to shut down schools, replace them with charter schools, and evaluate students and teachers based on scores on faulty exams. In 2010, the Coalition of Radial Educators (CORE) led a movement to overthrow the traditional leadership, making a prominent South Side educator, Karen Lewis, its president. They have significantly overhauled the union, and much of the leadership of the union is now rank and file educators. The coalition itself has also included parents and community members relevant to schools. In the months leading up to the strike, 90% of union members gave the union the right to strike. In short there has been widespread solidarity behind this strike, and widespread opposition to the policies of Rahm Emanuel.

Typically, Democrats have been dead silent on the action, and have refused to provide their support to the union. Republicans have condemned the strike while… attempting to prove to the public that the Democrats support the union. (Gotta give credit to Republicans for standing on conviction and imagination!) The UFT and the AFT have tepidly supported the CTU, while refusing to organize their members. (A march was organized by the Movement of Radical Educators in New York City yesterday from Union Square to the headquarters of the Democrats for Education Reform. The UFT was nowhere to be seen.)

That’s the state of the political scene’s response to what’s going on in Chicago. The most important response, however, has been that of the media, which does not seem to get the full meaning of this strike.

Many have focused on the pay raise and the benefit raise that the union is pushing for. This is certainly one of the sticking points in the contract negotiations, but there’s more to the story. I’ll let one of the strike organizers speak for himself.

PHIL CANTOR: We’re striking for a lot of reasons. If you just see what’s in the mainstream media, all they talk about is that teachers want more money. But that’s really far from the truth. We’re fighting for reasonable class sizes. We’re fighting for wraparound services for our students. I teach in a school with a thousand students; we don’t even have one social worker in that building for most of those kids. So we’re fighting for the education our students deserve in Chicago. We’re fighting against reforms that we see, from the classroom level, are not going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain why the emphasis on salary then. Is that the legal issue of what allows you to strike?

PHIL CANTOR: That’s absolutely right. You know, Rahm Emanuel has pushed through laws in Illinois, basically designed for his political gain, in my opinion. We’re not allowed legally to strike over anything but compensation. But teachers are not most interested in compensation; we’re most interested in being able to do our jobs for the students we serve. So, you know, I think we’re trying to tie other issues that we feel are very important to compensation, so they’re part of the bargaining table agreement.

You caught that? Yes legally speaking… this strike is about the pay, thanks to an anti-union bill passed earlier this year that makes that the only thing teachers can legally strike over. But it goes deeper than that, and that’s what makes this strike a very important moment in education activism. Chicago has been the center for every failed policy of the last 10 years, policies which have not raised test scores, but have certainly given greater power over our schools to corporate entities who design tests, lead charter schools, and bust unions. All the while, teacher morale is at an all time low and school resources in the poorest schools in Chicago (which can boast of having the most segregated school system of any large city in America.) are depleted. Yet that same reform movement that has failed us in this past decade has come back to say that if we just dump on teachers more, if we just have one more test, one more hoop to jump through, then everything will be okay. Test pay (I refuse to call it merit pay, because I’ve yet to see evidence to suggest that these tests actually indicate merit) is the next battle in education, and for the first time, a large union has taken to the streets to say that this should not happen.

That’s what we need to be talking about, and in the end, that’s what makes this movement worthwhile.

In short, this is more than just pay. This is about teachers being able to have some hand in how their profession works, and community members being able to have some hand in how their schools function.

But let’s say this is just about a 16% raise in pay in exchange for a longer school day. (This after Rahm broke the contract and rejected a 4% cost of living raise, which contrary to city claims, the Chicago DOE was able to afford.) Many have claimed that teachers are refusing to sacrifice for the common good, and claiming that the approximately $70,000 average salary that teachers take in is way too high.
I must admit that I don’t have the greatest argument against this. I’ll let this anonymous writer make the argument for me. Cheers:

Teachers’ hefty salaries are driving up taxes, and they only work 9 or 10 months a year. It’s time we put things in perspective and pay them for what they do – babysit.  We can get that for less than minimum wage.

That’s right. Let’s give them $3 an hour and only the hours they worked; not any of that silly planning time, or any time they spend before or after school. That would be $19.50 a day (7:45 to 3:00 PM with 45 min. off for lunch and plan– that equals 6 1/2 hours).

Each parent should pay $19.50 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children. Now how many students do they teach in a day…maybe 30? So that’s $19.50 x 30 = $585.00 a day.

However, remember they only work 180 days a year. I am not going to pay them for any vacations.

LET’S SEE…That’s $585 X 180= $105,300 per year. (Hold on. My calculator needs new batteries.)

What about those special education teachers and the ones with master’s degrees? Well, we could pay them minimum wage ($7.75), and just to be fair, round it off to $8.00 an hour. That would be $8 X 6 1/2 hours X 30 children X 180 days = $280,800 per year.

Wait a minute — there’s something wrong here. There sure is.

The average teacher’s salary (nationwide) is $50,000. $50,000/180 days = $277.77/per day/30 students=$9.25/6.5 hours = $1.42 per hour per student– a very inexpensive baby-sitter and they even EDUCATE your kids!)

WHAT A DEAL!

Best of luck to brothers and sisters at the CTU.

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