The Chicago Teachers Union Goes on the Offense Against Austerity

The Chicago Teachers Union is on strike this morning. In the face of incredibly restrictive, anti-worker labor law, they’re fighting to win written commitments on class size, staffing levels, privatization, and for the city’s entire working class.

Chicago public school teachers and their supporters picket in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters on September 11, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

“We paid to control the schools.”

Those are the words of Jim Franczek, lead negotiator for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), who sits across the table from representatives of two unions with 32,500 members walking the picket line today: the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.

But Franczek wasn’t talking about this year’s contract talks, or the ones before that, or the ones before that. He was remembering 1995, when he engineered a state law that placed drastic restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of education unions in school districts with a population of five hundred thousand or greater—a laughably narrow limitation that proves Franczek’s law was meant for Chicago and Chicago only.

With the strike that began today, the two unions are trying to burst the bonds of that 1995 law, which has allowed CPS to evade negotiating over the conditions of public education, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, inadequate privatized services, and worsening staffing levels that have left three out of four Chicago public schools — and nine out of ten schools in predominantly black neighborhoods — without a librarian.

The CTU and SEIU are aiming to undo a quarter century of damage inflicted in the name of “school reform” — which, from the mouths of ideologues like Franczek, has always meant blaming teachers for the crisis of underfunded schools, and punishing students and parents with high-stakes testing, school closures, and the mirage of “school choice.”

Despite her campaign promise to “transform” Chicago schools, first-year mayor Lori Lightfoot has gone along with Franczek’s trade-off. CPS proposed a “generous” salary offer (though it barely keeps up with inflation) while refusing to commit to Lightfoot’s promises with enforceable contract language.

“Why is it that they dangle the money in front of us and then call us greedy when we don’t just take their dangled money and shut up about everything else?” CTU president Jesse Sharkey asked a crowd of seven hundred CTU and SEIU members and supporters for a rally on Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the start of the strike week.

For years, previous union leaderships accepted Franczek’s bargain. But no longer. The CTU and SEIU want a contract that lifts the lowest-paid CPS workers out of poverty. But they also want Lightfoot and CPS to put these demands in writing: commit in the contract to reducing class sizes, hiring more support staff, dumping the multimillion-dollar contracts of for-profit parasites like Aramark and Sodexo, and addressing an affordable housing crisis that is driving students, parents, and school workers alike out of the city. She has thus far refused.

If the unions can prevail, the future of the Chicago Public Schools — and public education around the country — could look very different from the past twenty-four years.

A Legacy of Legal Roadblocks

The 1995 law that Franczek bragged about writing in an interview with the authors of a book about the 2012 CTU strike was a milestone in a conservative campaign masquerading as “reform” that began building during the Reagan years, when education secretary and right-wing culture warrior William Bennett singledout Chicago public schools for demonization as the worst in the country.

Franczek was personally selected by Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to negotiate union contracts for the city. He had supporters on the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago — a collection of top executives from sixty-five Chicago businesses, including McDonald’s, Amoco, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange — which was quickly gaining a national reputation as a crusader for the school privatization agenda.

The privatizers couldn’t have hoped for more from the law Franczek negotiated in the state capital of Springfield during his second year on the job. In passing the School Reform Amendatory Act, Republicans and most Democrats in the state legislature voted for a coup in Chicago’s schools.

The School Finance Authority and School Board Nominating Commission were abolished, and Daley was given sole power to handpick a new board as well as the top officials in the CPS administration—now led by a chief executive officer rather than a superintendent. Daley packed the new board with business leaders and appointed a City Hall budget bureaucrat named Paul Vallas to lead CPS, beginning a long and mostly uninterrupted pattern of Chicago school CEOs with little to no classroom experience.

Franczek saved some of the nastiest provisions of the law for the CTU. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act was amended to limit mandatory bargaining issues to pay, benefits, and the length of the school day and school year. Unlike every other school district in the state, class size, support staffing, outsourcing of school services, and more became “permissive” issues that the Daley-dictated CPS administration was free to disregard. With CTU’s contract about to expire, strikes were banned for eighteen months, and seniority rules were gutted.

A handful of dissident legislators pointed out the anti-labor and racist agenda at work in a law aimed squarely at educators who, as state representative Monique Davis put it, “teach where those black kids go to school . . . where those Latinos go to school.”

But incredibly, the CTU failed to mobilize its members against Franczek’s law or even criticize the Democrats, from Daley on down, who asked for labor support at election time and then signed off on union busting in Chicago schools. The union pushed a failed court challenge, but in a matter of months, it had agreed to its first four-year contract, which included decent pay raises — more “generous,” in fact, than what Lightfoot and Franczek are offering today — but took full advantage of the city’s new ability to neglect “permissive” issues.

The union’s failure to confront an anti-labor, undemocratic assault was the product of the business unionism mindset personified by the CTU’s president Thomas Reece, who accepted the more-pay-for-less-say trade-off. Reece was eventually voted out of office under a cloud of allegations of incompetence and corruption, but it was another decade and a half before a CTU leadership came to office with a commitment to a different vision for the union.

“In exchange for a fatter purse, CTU officials agreed to keep looking the other way as school reform continued unabated,” Steven Ashby and Robert Bruno wrote in their book A Fight for the Soul of Public Education. “CPS and the mayor had paid for the freedom to reorganize and close schools, subject students to increased high-stakes testing, increase high school class size, and further marginalize the control a teacher had over the school day.”

All the hallmarks of the privatization crusade came quickly in the new era of “mayoral control”: punitive measures against poorly performing schools, the charter school invasion, relentless high-stakes testing, closures, and “turnarounds.” Chicago became the epicenter of “school reform.”

Paul Vallas didn’t make it to the big time, but his deputy Arne Duncan did. After inheriting the CPS CEO position, Duncan unveiled Renaissance 2010, drawn straight from the blueprints of the Civic Committee privatizers. Over the next five years, sixty CPS schools were shut down, seventy-four charter or contract schools opened, and the CTU lost more than four thousand members.

Duncan flaunted his pro-corporate mentality as a badge of honor. “I am not a manager of 600 schools,” Duncan told one gathering. “I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools, and I’m trying to improve the portfolio.”

And when his Hyde Park neighbor and pickup basketball pal got a promotion, Duncan went along for the ride, becoming Barack Obama’s education secretary. Renaissance 2010 was essentially rebranded as Race to the Top, and the same extortion that Jim Franczek perfected with Chicago unions was employed on a national scale: offer cash-strapped state governments additional funding to implement the privatization agenda.

Another Chicagoan, Rahm Emanuel, served in the Obama White House as the administration enforcer until he came back as Richard Daley’s anointed successor as mayor. Emanuel was spoiling for a fight with the teachers’ union from the start. Even before taking office, he added a new twist to the legal straitjacket on Chicago education unions by lobbying for the law that required the CTU and SEIU to get 75 percent approval of every union member, not just those who vote, to authorize a strike.

Emanuel and the Civic Committee thought they’d shut down the teachers for good. But the CTU went up against Emanuel’s law three times in seven years and returned a 90-percent-plus vote in favor of strike authorization each time. SEIU Local 73 showed its defiance with a similarly overwhelming strike vote this summer.

Lightfoot’s Bait and Switch

As a candidate for mayor earlier this year, Lori Lightfoot portrayed herself as the polar opposite of Emanuel. She promised to remove City Hall’s iron grip on CPS by supporting an elected school board, for one. But once in office, it was a different story.

This spring, two bills passed the Democratic-controlled State House — one to reestablish an elected school board, the other to repeal Jim Franczek’s cherished legal restrictions on what CTU is allowed to negotiate. Passage in the State Senate and the signature of the Democratic governor were expected — until Lightfoot stepped in.

“Lightfoot asked Senate President John Cullerton to stall these bills,” education researchers Sumi Cho and Erica Meiners wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “As a result, Illinois’ legislative session ended last May with these bills sidelined in the Senate, just prior to contract negotiations between the CTU and the city.”

So Lightfoot and Franczek held on to the legal tools to hamstring school unions. But they haven’t succeeded in bullying the CTU and SEIU into submission. The unions want real gains on “mandatory” issues, including substantial pay increases for the lowest-paid CPS workers. But they are also using the leverage of picket lines and the power to mobilize public opinion to win written commitments on class size, staffing levels, privatization, and issues that go beyond the schools.

That message has gotten through. Despite its barrage of editorial-page propaganda advising teachers to accept higher salaries and leave education and social policy to the “experts,” the Chicago Sun-Times announced that its polling showed more Chicagoans will support the unions in a strike than City Hall. CPS parents were even more likely to side with teachers and school workers.

The stakes are high. As Rebecca Burns wrote at In These Times, this strike will test “whether unions can bargain for the entire working class.” If the CTU and SEIU succeed, it will be the vindication of a long battle of rank-and-file educators to challenge the school privatization agenda and the union leaders who accepted it. The current CTU leadership comes from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, which swept away the complicit old guard in 2010 with a union election campaign rooted in an alliance with community groups fighting school closures.

In 2012, that solidarity was repaid by wide support across working-class Chicago — strongest of all among African-American and Latino CPS parents — for the CTU’s strike. A stunned Rahm Emanuel had to give up on many items from the privatizers’ wish list. Four years later, the CTU led a coalition of unions and community allies in a one-day public-sector general strike to protest the austerity regime imposed jointly by Emanuel and Republican then-governor Bruce Rauner.

This year, educators are playing offense. Before the CTU’s strike vote last month, Christel Williams-Hayes, a paraprofessional in CPS schools for twenty-six years before she became the union’s recording secretary early this year, summarized what teachers and school workers should ask themselves: “How much do you value your profession and want to protect it? How much do you want to make sure that where you’re working, you have everything you need to be of good service and provide the proper education for every student in the city of Chicago?”

The picket lines at five hundred schools in every neighborhood of the city this morning are their answer.