Chicago Teachers: Strike to Win!

Workers Vanguard

Ever since Rahm Emanuel stepped down as Barack Obama’s chief of staff to become mayor of “Segregation City,” he has been hell-bent on crippling the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In an early salvo last August, this arrogant Democrat unilaterally canceled a pay raise for teachers. Well before the union contract expired at the end of June, Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Jean-Claude Brizard were beating the drum for a 20 percent longer day and two-week longer year in return for a paltry 2 percent wage increase. City Hall also wants to impose a “merit” pay system in place of one based on seniority, cost of living and teachers’ continuing education.

Not about to be steamrolled, thousands of incensed teachers and school-related personnel flocked to a union rally on May 23, filling the 4,000-seat Auditorium Theatre to capacity as thousands more gathered outside. At its conclusion, union members poured out of the building, joining those outside, and proceeded to take over the streets in the downtown Loop during rush hour, chanting: “Strike!” and “CTU!” A couple weeks later, nearly 90 percent of the 27,000-member CTU voted to authorize a strike, far more than required under an anti-union state law known as SB7 passed last year to put the clamps on the CTU.

In an agreement announced on July 24, the CTU tops gave the green light to a “modest” increase in the school day in exchange for CPS hiring 477 additional teachers, prompting both Emanuel and the union to declare victory. But the dispute is far from over. Left unresolved are many contentious issues, from pay to class size. The deal also does not preclude layoffs when the new school year begins.

Both sides are acutely aware that a lot is riding on this contract battle. With teachers unions under siege across the country—part of a broad government attack on public employees—what happens in Chicago may well set the tone for educators for years to come. Indeed, the city’s public schools have long served as a testing ground for schemes to slash school budgets, regiment classes and trample on union standards, as well as for other “reform” programs now pushed by the Obama White House in its war on public education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earned his spurs as CPS CEO, closing down over 60 public schools and greatly expanding non-union charter schools and military academies (see “Obama’s War on Public Education,” WV No. 967, 22 October 2010).

The city schools held up as a model by the Chicago cabal of Obama, Duncan and Emanuel are dilapidated and starved of funds, with the graduation rate hovering around 50 percent. Not coincidentally in racist capitalist America, these schools also are overwhelmingly attended by black and Latino youth. A strike by the heavily integrated CTU would win wide support not only from parents and students but also from working people and the ghetto and barrio masses, especially if teachers were to link their cause to a fight for fully funded, integrated, quality education. To beat back the union-busters, teachers must turn to their union allies in the schools and city—such as the transit workers and firefighters embroiled in their own contract disputes—not Democratic Party politicians who falsely parade themselves as “friends of labor.”

The clash between the CTU and mayor’s office has drawn comparisons to Wisconsin last year, when 100,000 outraged unionists massed in Madison to fight a major anti-labor assault on public workers by the Republican-led state government and Governor Scott Walker. Chicago teachers would do well to heed what happened next: labor officials channeled the potential for strike action into reliance on the Democrats, demobilizing the protests in favor of a campaign to recall the Republicans. As a result, the public employee unions were clobbered and are now hemorrhaging members, even as Walker later won his recall election.

The hidebound AFL-CIO bureaucrats are old hands at subordinating the interests of workers to those of the capitalist rulers, most often expressed through support to the Democratic Party. Contrary to popular perception, CTU President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey, whose Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) swept union elections two years ago, are cut from the same cloth. A “grassroots opposition” within the union that is open to parents and community members, CORE promised to build a “different kind of union” when it was formed in 2008 to much fanfare from the reformist left. Since taking office, CORE members have mobilized teachers for school board meetings and demonstrations, giving the regime a facade of militancy.

But behind the rallies and sound bites describing the abject poverty that plagues many CPS students lurks the same old class collaborationism. Acting every bit the labor statesman for the capitalist government, Lewis willingly signed off on the final version of SB7. This bill mandated a longer school day and longer year without a pay raise for union members and contained various measures making it more difficult to strike. Among them is the stipulation that 75 percent of the entire union membership must vote in favor of strike authorization for it to be valid, with ballots not cast counted as “no” votes. (By this standard, you can probably count on one finger how many bourgeois politicians would make it into office.) SB7 is a stacked deck against the union. A prominent school board backer even opined that it would “basically end collective bargaining rights in Chicago as we know it.”

In a letter to the membership following her approval of the bill, Lewis lamented: “Everyone at the table swallowed more than one bitter pill.” To hell with swallowing the “bitter pill”! When you only play by the bosses’ rules, you tie your own hands. The benefits that members of the CTU have today are a product of bitter struggle and several strikes, and it is going to take real class struggle by the unions to reverse their decades of decline. Hard-fought union action now could well provide a springboard for a drive to unionize the charter schools that represent a direct assault on teachers unions.

CORE leaders are no strangers to supporting the political representatives of the class enemy. In a 4 August 2010 interview with the “Real News Network” Web site, Lewis referred to Obama as her “guy” in the same breath that she derided his “Race to the Top” education program. Under the leadership of CORE, the CTU has endorsed numerous Democrats, such as Pat Quinn for governor, and thrown away nearly $200,000 to elect them. Since 1989, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association together have poured over $76 million of union dues into Democratic Party coffers.

The problem with the Democrats is not just one of particular policy. Rahm Emanuel is no loose cannon. The Democrats, no less than the Republicans, represent the interests of big business. They just appeal to a different constituency, using different rhetoric. The particular role of the Democrats in American bourgeois politics is to tie the aspirations of the working class and oppressed black and Latino masses to this rotten capitalist system, all the better to stab them in the back when it counts.

Take Jesse Jackson Sr., with whom Lewis is closely aligned. Over the years, he has specialized in dousing the embers of social and class struggle. In fact, Jackson sabotaged the CTU during its strikes in 1973 and again in 1983 when his Operation PUSH organized scab schools. In 1980, he gave the same treatment to Chicago firefighters during their strike when he unsuccessfully tried to get black firefighters to scab on their white union brothers. And in 2000, Jackson was key in scuttling a transit strike in Los Angeles. Some “friend” of labor!

Among CORE’s most laudatory and uncritical supporters is the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO), whose supporters are active in CORE. Union VP Sharkey is himself a longtime contributing writer for the ISO’s newspaper, Socialist Worker. In a 12 June interview on the CBS2 Morning News following the strike authorization vote, Sharkey stated: “What every teacher understood is that this was never a vote about striking. This was a vote to essentially give the union the bargaining power to try to negotiate a fair contract over the course of the summer.” Such timeworn overtures to the bosses are commonplaces for run-of-the-mill union bureaucrats intent on defusing class struggle.

For such reformists, union struggle is to be considered only within the parameters permitted by the capitalist rulers. A Socialist Worker article headlined “How Can the Chicago Teachers Union Win?” (26 June) laments that other school unions “are contractually obligated to cross CTU picket lines” without a word of the need to defy such “obligations.” This article derides SB7 but assiduously avoids mentioning the CORE bureaucracy’s endorsement of the bill or its support to Democratic Party politicians. At the time of the showdown in Wisconsin, the ISO disparaged the call for a statewide strike as “unlikely to get very far.” Indeed, in the view of the ISO, the entire purpose of labor protest is to pressure the Democrats to “fight” for a few more crumbs for working people.

What is needed is a class-struggle leadership of the unions—one based on the understanding that the interests of working people and the oppressed cannot be reconciled with those of the capitalist rulers. The woeful state of public education in this country is a searing indictment of racist capitalist America with its deep class divisions. The capitalist rulers have relegated ghetto and barrio youth to menial jobs, to the armed forces or to a life behind bars. As such, they have no interest in spending the money to upgrade schools in the inner city or pay teachers union wages to educate these kids. The stark reality is that these schools are overwhelmingly segregated and becoming little more than holding pens. In a sign of the times, the money earmarked for the teachers’ raise that Emanuel canceled was handed out to the Chicago Police instead to pay for more cops to patrol school hallways.

The Chicago Tribune has published a barrage of anti-union articles and editorials, bemoaning the fact that there supposedly is no money in the tight city budget to pay teachers and imploring the CTU to be “reasonable.” Expecting compensation for a longer workday is not unreasonable. But at issue is not just fighting a pay cut. Teachers work in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms and spend countless hours planning lessons and grading papers at home. The solution is to hire many more teachers, reduce class sizes and fully fund all the schools.

The problem is not that such demands are “unreasonable” but rather the anarchic capitalist profit system itself. In their drive for ever greater profits, the capitalists have run industry, schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure into the ground. Untold numbers of workers have been thrown onto the scrap heap as the economy continues to falter. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, stated: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizibility’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle.”

The money and resources exist to provide quality, integrated education for all but to seize that wealth requires breaking the bourgeoisie’s hold on power. Working people need a party that fights for their class interests, a multiracial revolutionary workers party, independent from all parties of capital. The Spartacist League is committed to building the party that will lead all of the exploited and oppressed in the struggle to sweep away this decaying capitalist system and establish an egalitarian socialist society.

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