The Chicago teachers union has energized teachers, parents and students to fight for better public schools.
In late July, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union won a major victory in its contract battle when the city halted its effort to increase teacher work hours.
Chicago teachers are now on the front lines of the national battle over what “education reform” should really mean. “Our students deserve smaller class sizes, a robust, well-rounded curriculum, and in-school services that address their social, emotional, intellectual and health needs,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “Parents, teachers and community leaders across Chicago have been unanimous in saying we want a better school day for our students, not just a longer one.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago school board announced in April, 2012 that they were unilaterally increasing the school day by 20% in the Fall – without increasing teaching staff or providing proportional compensation for the additional hours.
Chicago teachers work an average of 58 hours a week, according to a recent report. This demanding work schedule contradicts the idea, fed by local media, that public school teachers in Chicago are not pulling their weight. Blocking the mayor’s plan is particularly significant because, under Illinois labor law, the board is not required to negotiate with teachers over work hours.
The interim agreement requires that students spend more time in the classroom beginning next month, but teacher work hours won’t spike higher. Instead, the city will create 500 new positions. This new investment comes at a time when Chicago has been slashing resources and cutting programs across the system, especially in low-income black and Latino communities. Many schools have lost such basics as libraries and recess. The 500 new positions and additional resources will begin filling some of these gaps.
A key gain for the union in the interim agreement was winning recall rights for teachers who lose their jobs due to downsizing or school closures. If more than three tenured teachers displaced within the last three years apply for one of the new positions, the job must go to one of them. Currently, Chicago teachers have no recall rights.
While not as strong as recall rights enjoyed by teachers in New York and other cities, the provision is still “precedent-setting,” says CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle. “This is the first recall of any sort that we’ve ever had. It kicks the door open to us getting real recall for our people.”
The retreat by Chicago politicians and the subsequent agreement comes after months of member mobilization. Union members have been a regular presence at school board meetings and school closure hearings. In May, 2012, a sea of 6,000 red shirts marched on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange shareholders’ meeting to protest government handouts for the Exchange while education and other public services are cut.
After negotiations deadlocked, the union held “practice strike authorization votes” in schools across the city. Practice made perfect: in June, an overwhelming 92% of the union’s membership voted to authorize a strike.
According to Mayle, yesterday’s agreement proves that people power and direct action get the goods. “It only took 10,000 people in the street, a strike authorization vote, and a fact finder to tell them that they’re crazy but, hey, whatever works!”
The longer school day has been an especially contentious issue in the heated negotiations between the union and the city. Teachers were angered by both the imposition of more work without a raise and the city’s lack of any strategic plan for the use of this extra time to improve students’ academic performance. Teachers and parents were allied in their objection to additional classroom time with no increase in strategic investment or new programming.
The union has been advocating for guaranteed art, music, and physical education for all students, and calling for increased funding for school nurses and social workers.
The 500 new hires will likely fill gaps for much-needed “enrichment” subjects like music, library science, and languages.
“We’ve been pushing for a better school day, and this is our chance to get it,” said Mayle. Negotiations between the union and the city are far from over. The interim agreement leaves salary and health care costs unresolved, and doesn’t address disputes over evaluations and discipline procedures.
And while new teachers will increase the variety of classes offered, the increase amounts to only one additional teacher per school, on average. The change will do nothing to fix the problem of too-large classes.
Until those issues are resolved, says Mayle, the CTU is still “going full speed ahead” with preparations for a possible strike in September.
An earlier version of this article was published at labornotes.org.