CHICAGO – One year ago, nearly 30,000 public school educators took to the picket lines to fight for the neighborhood schools their students deserve. They also wanted to secure a strong labor contract and regain respect for their profession. It was the first teachers strike in the city’s history in 25 years and it took the city by storm. Led by Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis, a former chemistry teacher, the colorful demonstrations, which began September 10, 2012 and lasted nine days, garnered national and international headlines as the “sea of red,” flooded the streets of downtown Chicago in a unified show of force.
The 2012 teachers strike was perhaps the first time in city history that a labor action of its kind garnered widespread support from the public, including parents of Chicago Public School (CPS) students. After weeks of dramatic labor negotiations, protests, news conferences and rallies at the Board of Education teachers walked away with one of the strongest labor contract in recent history, a more unified workforce and the distinction of haven taken on a powerful, media-savvy mayor and won.
For weeks leading up to the strike, teachers and other school employees organized internally, trained its leaders and began an outreach campaign for parents. Lewis and other CTU leaders showed the public that a ‘good contract’ was paramount in having high-quality, neighborhood schools. The union consistently pushed the narrative that proved that poverty and severe racial disparities had significantly impacted the school district. It released its ground-breaking education platform, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” and advocated for reforms to the TIF program, additional wrap-around services for students, quality school facilities and more access to pre-school and kindergarten for low-income students. The union pulled the curtain off the charter movement’s marketing campaign and called on the school district to hold the privately-held, publicly funded operations accountable for poor student performance and high teacher turn-over rates.
The events leading to the strike were equally dramatic. On May 23rd, more than 12,000 CTU members, parents and students took to the streets of Chicago in a dynamic display of solidarity. Weeks later on June 11, the CTU revealed that 90 percent of its members voted to give their labor organization the authority to call a strike. A new state law had required a 75 percent of all eligible CTU voters to vote in the affirmative in order to provide strike authorization. The law proved useless as the city’s public school educators responded to a barrage of coordinated attacks from the mayor’s office, school CEO and the city’s wealthy, out-of-town corporate school reform assassins. After all night labor negotiations with the Board failed to produce an agreement, the union called a strike at midnight on Sept. 10 and teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals walked the picket lines until they returned to the classroom just over a week later; this despite, the mayor’s unsuccessful attempt to have a court force an end to the strike.
“This Union had survived an all-out attack on our very existence and our ability to advocate for our members, our students and their communities from a well-funded, well-orchestrated group of extremely wealthy people who saw themselves as the authorities on education,” Lewis reflected. “We were vilified in the press and on paid radio ads which attempted to paint us as greedy and unknowledgeable. Our contractually agreed to raises were stolen to goad us into acting rashly. Our members have been laid off, terminated and publicly humiliated all in attempt to turn public school educators and the public against us. None of it worked.”
Added CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, “The odds were not in our favor. The state legislature had been conned by the corporate reformers into passing Senate Bill 7 which was nothing more than an attempt to bust our union and further decimate our public school system. Our members were angry but worn out from fighting their principals over the years; and, the public had not been given the whole story. People believed that teachers were lazy and were to blame for everything that’s wrong in our system. No one wanted a strike, but we had to exercise our right to strike in order to strengthen our school district. This was bigger than taking on the mayor or the Board—this was about fighting for our students, and people finally understood that.”
For the first time in CTU history, the union was able to secure a number of gains for its members including, blocking the use of merit pay and standardized test scores in teacher evaluations; a principal anti-bullying clause; freedom to develop lesson plans; the hiring of art, music and physical education teachers to create a “better school day” for students as the year grew longer; significant cost of living increases; and short-term disability leave for pregnant teachers. In addition, for the first time in nearly two decades, Lewis, Sharkey and the other officers, Recording Secretary Michael Brunson and Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle, were re-elected by 80 percent of its members following a contract negotiation. Previous contracts had led to past CTU leaders being thrown out of office.
“We also gained international respect for our resistance to the struggle for equitable education. We won the right for professional autonomy in lesson plans; we won a more reasonable evaluation system which was intended to use up to 50 percent for student test scores,” Lewis said. “We gained the ability to finally have due process in all discipline issues and the right to appeal evaluations. We also won a real right for teachers to follow students when schools close—which proved significant when CPS closed 50 schools in a single year.”
Some critics believe the strike did little beyond addressing the bread and butter issues impacting teachers. However, the school district announced recently that last year’s test scores went up; the longer school day was a success and the overall quality of education improved in just a short year. This was due to the visible and vocal advocacy of rank-and-file teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians who fought for change the conversation about public education in the city.
While the CTU strike sparked similar labor protests throughout the state, including about eight teacher strikes in the region, the organization’s leaders say there is still much work to be done. The group will continue to expose the contradictions in public policy as well as broaden its base of support by working with parents, students, clergy, community-based organizations and others.
“Since the strike we have strengthened our ability to build power through a significant change in the political landscape including increased voter awareness, registration and candidate preparation,” Lewis said. “We’ve done remarkable work towards equitable funding by changing the conversation about revenue but now our focus is on securing fair taxes, closing corporate loopholes and holding the unelected, unaccountable school board to making budgetary decisions that do not destroy traditional public schools.”