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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Chicago Teachers Union Strike Viewed From The Local Level

As of 10 p.m. Sunday night, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike. Here is a webpage for why they are striking, complete with the one-page explanation and the 46-page one. Here’s PCCC’s summary. Here’s a local teacher explaining why he is on strike.

As Bill Barclay at Dissent Magazine noted, there was a special bill passed last year that required 75 percent of teachers to vote — with absentees counted as no votes! — to strike. Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that “the unions cannot strike in Chicago” because that requirement, only required of teachers, was so restrictive. Turns out that this strike got 90 percent of teachers (and 98 percent if you exclude the absentees).

I reached out to two Chicago journalists and writers – Yana Kunichoff and Micah Uetricht – who are covering the situation locally to get their on-the-ground perspectives. A lightly edited transcript of the interview with each follows. I hope to have more coverage of this very important event in the days to follow.

Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.

Yana Kunichoff: My name is Yana Kunichoff. I’m a journalist for Truthout, which is a progressive online news magazine. I’ve written for a lot of independent media, where my focus has been immigration, investigative issues, and social justice activism. I’ve been living in Chicago for four years now.

Why is a strike happening?

YK: There are several layers to why this strike is happening. The shallowest, headline news one is because the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were not able to agree to a contract. A deeper reason is because this is one of the first times that an education public sector union has resisted and pushed back against the privatization and changes that have been happening in the education sector.

Looking back at bills passed last year and before, they all narrowed what the teachers’ union is allowed to strike over. On paper, the biggest questions are on merit pay and seniority rights. But there are all these other points. Rahm Emanuel said in his press conference after the strike was declared that the two points under debate “are not financial.” The two big issues under debate, from Emanuel’s point of view, are teacher evaluation and principals having the full ability to hire and fire teachers.

What’s it like for Democrats in Chicago?

YK: I don’t know how much I can speak to the battle in the Democratic Party. There’s an interesting contradiction that exists in Chicago. If you are a liberal in Chicago you support Obama, but at the same time there’s a possibility you support the union. I know people supporting the campaign that support the teachers’ union, even though someone associated with the administration is trying to smash it.

How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?

YK: Chicago is a pretty divided city, with neighborhoods divided by class. I spent today riding my bike around Latino, working-class neighborhoods — Pilsen, Little Village, and North and South Lawndale. These are areas that aren’t doing well in this economy.

I’m seeing a lot of cars honking their horns, and police running their siren while they go by a school picket. The people that have to deal with the daily reality of school cutbacks, or mental health clinic shutdowns, or how’ll they get home in winter with less public transit, the people who deal with austerity budgets, are in support of the teachers’ strike.

Chicago is becoming increasingly gentrified, though, with more people who don’t rely so much on public services. I’m not sure what they think of the strikes yet.

Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?

YK: The charter system is something that started in Chicago but has since been brought national. These kinds of policies that work against teachers aren’t going to stay contained to one city. This trend will continue into other cities and states, especially where unions are weak. So this is where the fight is happening. When you are here on the ground, it feels like a strong line of opposition. Opposition to policies that aren’t just national but international – think of places like Greece and the more general fights against austerity happening across Europe here.

The national coverage will watch the specific contract terms, though they’ll miss that 10 years from now, the specific, narrow terms will matter less than whether or not a union in an American city will have been successful in pushing back in this way. This is a fight over public resources, public jobs, and the idea of a public that isn’t discussed by national media as if it exists. Will there be public schools as we understand them in 10 years?

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