The Long Road to Victory

Amisha Patel

The Chicago Teachers Union settled a tentative contract earlier this week, but austerity is still the order of the day in Chicago.

The Chicago Teachers Strike in 2012. Alejandro Quinones / Flickr

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

The Chicago Teachers Union narrowly averted a strike this week, negotiating right up to the deadline late Monday night before announcing a tentative agreement on a contract with Chicago Public Schools.

Like all union contracts, the results appear mixed. The union held the line on a number of issues like preventing the district from ending its contributions to teachers’ pensions. (New hires in the district will not receive the contribution, but will receive a higher salary to make up for it.)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to eliminate the teachers’ “steps and lanes” wage scale — steps for time teaching, lanes for new credentials like masters degrees — but the tentative agreement preserves it. Teachers will be paying more for health care, but not much. The CTU won new language protecting teachers from layoffs and capping class sizes.

Most important, apart from the contract itself, the union forced Emanuel to give up $75 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds. TIFs are a slush fund controlled by the mayor that divert resources from public institutions like libraries and schools and are often used as giveaways to corporations like United Airlines and the Chicago Board of Trade.

Before the strike, Jacobin associate editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, a community and labor coalition that has worked closely alongside the CTU in recent years, about what is still at stake in the CTU’s fights in Chicago.

Micah Uetricht

The heart of the CTU’s organizing in recent years has been about the demand for austerity in Chicago. CTU and the Grassroots Collaborative and others have argued that the district is not actually broke — that it’s “broke on purpose,” in order to justify austerity measures. What exactly is meant by that?

Amisha Patel

It’s about understanding why we have a crisis in the schools, and to name the fact that it’s been created by the administration, the banks, the wealthy, and large corporations that are trying to influence education policy and other policies in Chicago to the detriment of working families. Those decisions are the reason why there are not resources that the schools need and deserve.

That happens in various ways: moving public dollars into charter schools at the expense of neighborhood public schools, not fighting to make sure that tax increment financing money should actually go to the schools, the privatization of services in the schools. Or whether it’s the school district going into these terrible finance deals with Wall Street banks that have cost CPS over $500 million — money that could have gone to students instead of bankers.

The school district, the appointed board of Rahm Emanuel, and the mayor himself have chosen to systematically take money out of the schools.

There’s a real budget crisis in Chicago. There’s not enough money coming in. But the reason there’s not enough money coming in is because the district has made decisions and choices to take that money out of the schools and instead move it to the private sector, move it to their banking buddies — basically anywhere but the classrooms.

Micah Uetricht

Can you give an overview of recent austerity measures in Chicago?

Amisha Patel

The biggest example is the closing of fifty public schools in mostly black communities. Those neighborhoods have lost the key institution that is not only a center of learning, but also a connection as a community. That impact has been placed on the backs of families of color in the city.

After the school closings, Grassroots Collaborative began to organize around these things called interest-rate swaps. The person who became the president of the mayoral-appointed board of education was himself a banker that helped to craft these deals for CPS. These were basically risky deals with Wall Street banks that we ended up losing big on.

These deals were side bets on CPS borrowing that were fixed interest rates. The bankers who made these loans then crashed the economy and interest rates went plummeting. Yet the schools were still locked into paying these very high interest rates. The way out of the deal, according to the contract, is to pay an early termination fee and the cost of what you would have paid to the bank over the life of the deal. So, not at all in the interest of taxpayers in the city of Chicago.

At the time, we were organizing against Bank of America over swaps, trying to force them to renegotiate the deals and save nine schools from closing by doing so — which is how many schools they could have saved by returning their profits. We were trying to force the mayor and his appointed board of education to fight for every dollar on behalf of their students.

So this isn’t an abstract argument. Millions and millions of dollars are leaving the district to go into bankers’ hands, and it’s preventing schools from staying open.

It’s a good example of what this austerity attack on the schools has looked like. There isn’t real interest in supporting schools with students of color. There’s a continual undermining of the district, all because of the mayor and his board’s desire to break the power of the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

Micah Uetricht

What about privatization?

Amisha Patel

The example of privatization gone awry is the contracting out of janitorial services in Chicago Public Schools to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The work historically had been done by public employees, represented by a union.

The contract with Aramark was supposedly in the interest of saving all of this money. But the result of this privatization was that parents, teachers, and principals were all having to actually clean classrooms, clean entire buildings, because the services were so subpar. The contractor was trying to make as much money as possible off of schools, and it did that by not paying workers, not giving them the equipment they needed, and not having enough workers to do the work.

The analysis showed that their projected savings started to disappear when the actual costs of that privatization were calculated. And that’s true for most privatizations. What gets billed as a cheaper deal in the beginning ends up over the life of that contract costing the same if not more than if it was continued to be done by public employees – but often at the cost of quality.

Micah Uetricht

There’s also an austerity crisis at the state level.

Amisha Patel

Austerity didn’t start with Rauner, but it has been amplified to a huge degree since he’s been in office.

We’re the only state in the country that doesn’t have an effective budget — we’ve gone for over a year without one. And the stopgap budget they just passed is not a real budget because there’s no new revenue behind it. You cannot get to a solution on the budget without progressive revenue solutions to get the resources that we need.

So because of this crisis, not only have massive cuts come down, but numerous social service agencies have closed. Close to 90 percent of homeless shelters have experienced some kind of cut because of the failure to pass a fair budget in Illinois.

And that’s just one example. We’ve heard the waitlist for sexual assault services now is over a year. We have Chicago State University, the only historically black college in Illinois, teetering on the verge of closing because of massive budget cuts. Freshman enrollment is at record lows.

And I’ve talked to students from across the state — at Eastern Illinois University, for example, students told me that they were thinking about applying to other schools as backups because they’re not even sure they can finish their degree at their university.

Enrollment in public universities, particularly lower, smaller, and middle-sized public universities in the state, is down by huge numbers. It’s going to take years if not decades for Illinois to recover from the last year and a half underneath Governor Rauner. I’ve heard it estimated that over a million families have been directly affected by the budget crisis since Rauner has been in office. These are just staggering numbers and staggering impact.

So we are deeper and deeper into this state of horror.

To fight this, Grassroots Collaborative has been pushing for transformative demands. We can’t just say stop the cuts. That’s not a demand that’s ever worked.

We have decided to make the demand instead, tax the rich. Close the corporate loopholes. Get our money back from the banks. We have to actually name the people who are causing this crisis and go after them to make sure that we actually can move out of this crisis.

What is needed right now is a bold movement forward — which is exactly what the CTU is doing.

It is fundamentally impossible to fund the schools at the level needed without raising more revenue. And we need to raise revenues on the wealthiest people in Illinois who can most afford to pay and should be paying more.

Illinois is actually the fifteenth-wealthiest state in the country. There’s a lot of money in this state. But it’s forty-seventh in spending on education, health care, and human services. We have a flat income tax. This is why we don’t have the resources in CPS and across the state — because we don’t actually tax those who have the money.

Yet Governor Rauner has refused to move on new revenue without moving on his anti-union agenda.

Emanuel has pointed his finger at Rauner and the state government. But it’s also critical for us to point the finger back at the mayor and say, “We don’t know when the state-level dysfunction is going to end, and as long as Rauner’s in office it’s going to be a continual struggle. So in the meantime, Mr Mayor, what are you going to do to fight for every single dollar to go into the schools?”

Why isn’t he pushing to make sure that the TIF money that diverts property tax dollars away from the schools and into corporations’ coffers goes back to the schools? There are many opportunities for the mayor to fight for funding that he controls, yet time and time again he refuses to do so.

Micah Uetricht

You and the CTU agree that one, there is money that is available to the city to fund the schools, it’s just being allocated in ways that benefit the rich. And two, there is a need for additional funding, but that that money has to come from the rich, not from teachers’ pensions or cuts at the classroom level.

Let’s start with the first part. Where is the money that we have now that could be used for CPS?

Amisha Patel

Suing the banks to recover the $500 million they took from the schools would be a start. But Mayor Emanuel gave away the city’s right to sue when he signed new contracts with them and paid every dime of Wall Street’s ransom. Still, Attorney General Lisa Madigan could sue on behalf of the city.

There are no current swaps, because, Emanuel would say very proudly, he got out of those deals. Well, he got us out of them by paying them every single dollar they asked for — not by fighting them to get that money back.

The only possible remedy would have been if the attorney general were to file a lawsuit on behalf of the state or the city to try to fight the banks to get that money back. Rahm Emanuel not only paid all the money back to the banks, but he also signed an agreement to say that he himself would never sue the banks to get that money back. That’s our leadership.

Micah Uetricht

Why wouldn’t CPS or Mayor Emanuel want to go after that money?

Amisha Patel

They’d have to admit that those deals, created by the former board president of Chicago Public Schools, David Vitale, were bad, and that they didn’t know what they were getting into and were misled by the banks. And they don’t want to do that.

There’s also the fact that the decision-makers are of the world of the folks who are profiting off of those decisions. So when you have an appointed board of education appointed by a mayor who is a former investment banker himself, whose side do you expect him to be on?

Micah Uetricht

What about tax increment financing?

Amisha Patel

TIFs are a big one. They are dollars that were initially meant to spur development in blighted communities, but instead have become a giant slush fund available to the mayor and alderman to decide what to do with. They have given those funds to corporations like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The largest futures trading corporation in the world got $15 million from the city to, among other things, rehab their bathrooms.

We were able to fight to get that money back. But it’s a constant fight to get money back from corporate hands that don’t need that money and to make sure that that money does go back into the neighborhoods across the city.

We have worked for years to force as much TIF money to go back into the classrooms and have been successful in forcing the mayor to declare larger and larger surpluses and to move executive orders that unused funds to go back into the schools trusts and libraries every year. In decades past, when TIF money wasn’t spent, it just stayed there, and it was available for whenever the mayor felt like spending it.

There’s currently a huge organizing push led by groups across the city but in particular Brighton Park Neighborhood Council that are saying that there’s actually enough money in the TIF funds to raise per-pupil spending by $500 in the city of Chicago.

There are also things that the city of Chicago used to do that generated revenue better. We used to have a head tax where we taxed larger companies a per-employee tax. That generated tens of millions of dollars. When Rahm Emanuel came into office, he got rid of it. The policies that actually were getting revenue from the folks that had the ability and should be paying more, he worked to stop.

Micah Uetricht

The CTU made this recent near-strike about a number of major policy proposals, from stopping austerity to taxing the rich. But these aren’t things that can be negotiated into the teachers’ contract.

Amisha Patel

The CTU and other unions across the country are more and more exploring this idea of bargaining for the common good. This is unions, in particular public-sector unions, taking on community demands at the bargaining table.

So, legally, they may not have the right to strike over for example, progressive revenue issues. But by raising that demand at the bargaining table they bring the power of what’s possible in the moments of contract negotiations to larger aspirations that if won would change the entire political landscape.

The CTU is actually standing with community organizations and low-income families across the city and state to say that the long-term solution to all of this is that we actually have to find the funding that we have the right to have in our communities. It provides another anchor point to the organizing work that many of us are doing beyond that bargaining table.

It’s not legally permissible, for example, to go on strike over air conditioning. But during the last strike, CTU continually talked about the need for air conditioning in the classrooms. And the need for librarians, and the need for all of these supports that every student should have but poor students of color don’t get.

They couldn’t actually bargain over that. But after the contract gets settled, suddenly CPS figures how to get air conditioning in dozens of more schools.

So it really just shows the power of bringing community and labor demands to the bargaining table. If more unions did this, it would really change the entire landscape of what’s possible for all of us.

Micah Uetricht

Given that you can’t win these demands at the bargaining table, but it is possible to use the strike to get closer to winning those demands, isn’t it sort of difficult to figure out what a victory versus what a defeat looks like?

Amisha Patel

This is a key question that folks in the union and allies are trying to figure out. How do you prepare to win around something that is a long-term, transformative demand but isn’t going to happen immediately after the strike gets settled?

For me, our demands and the way we carve out our wins and our work in general are often wins in narrative and messaging and admissions of wrong policies. If the demand is about getting concrete dollars, there’s not always a quick path to that. But if we don’t raise the need, we’ll never get to where we need to be.

Micah Uetricht

There is a narrative that the mayor’s office seems to be pushing lately that even though Emanuel and Rauner have been close friends for many years — Rauner gave Emanuel advice on work in investment banking, and the two have spent time together on Rauner’s Montana ranch drinking insanely expensive wine — they are currently at odds with each other over a number of major issues. Is there any truth to this?

Amisha Patel

Governor Rauner has been quite polarizing in this fight. For example, Rauner announced earlier this year that Chicago Public Schools needs to be declared bankrupt. Saying that very vocally was part of the factors that made borrowing more risky for Chicago Public Schools and therefore more expensive.

And there was recently a report in the Wall Street Journal that showed that over $600 million of borrowing that districts did at that time, Chase Bank and Nuveen Investments made over $110 million in profit. Just completely outrageous.

Now, certainly there’s some important critiques of why are we in so much debt in the first place. But Rauner has never been interested in trying to figure out how to come to an agreement to help CPS. Instead, he firebombs the teachers’ union to try to continue to polarize the CTU from the rest of the public.

The mayor and the governor have both tried to do that and it hasn’t worked, as polling consistently shows: it’s three-to-one in support of Karen Lewis over Rahm Emanuel when it comes to direction of education policy in the city.

The governor has definitely been using this to move his anti-union agenda, and it’s very clear that’s his only interest.

Micah Uetricht

The Grassroots Collaborative is made up of nine community groups and two unions. The majority of the membership of those nine groups are working-class Chicagoans. These are people who send their kids to CPS. So they might be sympathetic to the CTU, but they also are going to be the ones who bear the immediate brunt of actions like a teachers strike.

How do you deal with that tension?

Amisha Patel

There was actually even greater community support for the teachers this round than there was last time. And that’s because over the all the years since Karen Lewis has been president and her team has been in office, they’ve only grown their relationships with community organizationss and parents and students across the city.

Yes, there is definitely a challenge for parents to figure out what to do with their children if the teachers walk out on strike. But their response is actually that the people are ready to stand side by side with them and fight for the vision the teachers are putting out.

I was speaking with someone from a very large child-care provider last week who works in a Latino community, and they were telling me that they were getting ready to provide all-day care for young people in the event of a strike. Even organizations like that that are already struggling with the state budget crisis already are doing more and more with less.

These organizations are hurting financially, no doubt. Yet they’re stepping up because they know it’s something that needs to happen and it’s the right thing to do.

I haven’t seen any tensions. What I’ve seen more like readiness to take on this fight together.