“This City Is Ours, Too”

Mueze Bawany

Chicago teachers are on strike today. A high school teacher explains to us why the strike is the union’s best tool to fight for better conditions in the city’s schools and an end to austerity.

Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters prepare to march through the Loop on October 17, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

Interview by
Indigo Olivier

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is on strike. The teachers walked off the job this morning alongside members of SEIU Local 73 who work as school staff, making demands for an end to poverty wages for Local 73 members and adequate funding for social workers, nurses, and librarians in Chicago schools.

Mueze Bawany teaches twelfth grade “senior seminar” at Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. The night before walking off the job, Bawany explained what’s at stake in the strike.

Indigo Olivier

Following the expiration of the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) contract in June, a contract proposal that included a 16 percent salary increase over the next five years was proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but the CTU has been making demands beyond increasing teachers’ salaries. What’s at stake during this strike and why the CTU didn’t agree to the contract offer?

Mueze Bawany

There are two things here. The 16 percent is really misleading. Sixteen percent over five years, considering how expensive Chicago is, is not a lot. There’s also a lot of potential of skyrocketing health care costs. They also talked a lot about the average teacher’s compensation, claiming it’s $100,000. But that teacher would have to be in their eleventh year currently, and right now, the attrition rate for educators is around three years — a lot of teachers leave after that. That’s been the trend. So I think that 16 percent was really not 16 percent at all.

But the more important aspect of this has been the work of people like [former union president] Karen Lewis, [current president] Jesse Sharkey, Stacey Davis Gates, our vice president. Stacy recently said, “No one got into this to be rich.” You have people who are incredibly selfless, a ton of people who care.

For us, it’s a historic moment. I get kind of emotional thinking about how we’re at the front and center where we’re talking about housing security, as part of our bargaining for the common good. That’s the more important thing. That’s why you had 94 percent authorize for a strike, and you had the House of Delegates [the union’s internal elected body] unanimously reject CPS’s contract offer, because so many of us realize that our kids are worth all of it — everything.

And teachers get it in our classrooms. We see the things that people don’t see, like the traumas students are bringing in, what it means when your students are hungry, what it means when your students are affected by a parent picking up a second job because the rent is getting ridiculous. Or what it means to have homeless students, 18,000 of them in CPS.

Trying to buy us off, trying to just tell us to just take the money was something that we recognized a mile away. Because it’s not about the money. I don’t know who they think we are, like we would take the money and forget about the kids. That’s not who we are.

Indigo Olivier

At the bargaining table, the CTU has brought up issues like affordable housing, sanctuary protection in schools for undocumented students, and additional school resources that would benefit students and nonteaching school staff. Lightfoot has said she agrees with many of these demands but is promising to address them outside of the contract. Why is it so important that these things are codified in writing?

Mueze Bawany

When you think about austerity politics, I think of Naomi Klein — manufacturing crisis and this idea of “disaster capitalism.” And it was Rahm Emanuel who said, “don’t let a crisis go to waste.” If you think Chicago is broke, just drive by the lakefront and see how many yachts are parked there. We’re not broke. How do you not have money for schools and the communities that need them the most — students of color, undocumented students, homeless students — but you can throw around $2.4 billion dollars on egregious real-estate development giveaways?

To not have the promises in writing will mean that the promises we’ve been given to benefit the public good and help our kids will be the first ones to go when the city decides it wants more austerity.

So many of us in this profession are young, new, and are worried. Teachers don’t want conflict. We genuinely, every day, imagine a world where things are how they’re supposed to be. The contract is our way to move towards that.

Indigo Olivier

Chicago has been at the forefront of austerity politics in the country for years now, particularly under Rahm Emanuel. When Lori Lightfoot was running for mayor, she promised she would be different. She ran on a platform to “transform Chicago Public Schools,” including a publicly elected school board, a freeze on charter school expansion, and hundreds of jobs for school staff like nurses and social workers. Do you feel like she’s gone back on her campaign promises?

Mueze Bawany

Absolutely. Rahm’s bread and butter was being genuinely evil. This is the guy who said he was going to separate the teachers from the union when he was coming into office. Mayor Lightfoot has said she was going to do all these things for our schools — there’s plenty of videos of press conferences where she’s saying this. She ran on our platform. Yet here we are.

Once she was elected, I think for she made a decision to discard her promises to educators and students and families, because we are the ones that are marginalized and often forgotten.

Indigo Olivier

In 2012, the CTU took a “bargaining for the common good” approach to their strike. SEIU Local 73, representing school support staff and Chicago Parks District workers, have also planned to strike on October 17. How do you see this strike as going beyond education?

Mueze Bawany

I keep thinking about the last two strikes: 2012, our one-day strike in 2016, and now. It’s disheartening, because I’m now thinking about 2023. We’ll probably strike then, too. Someone is not getting the message — and we know who that someone is.

For me, bargaining for the collective good makes sense. This contract is economically just, it’s socially just. It’s just in its approach to racial politics in Chicago. This mission that we’ve been on since 2012 honors the communities. We’ve lost 200,000 black citizens in Chicago in the last decade. We saw fifty schools shut down.

I’ve been in meetings about school buildings that have been sold to be turned into condos. You just pause and think about the joy that used to exist in this auditorium, how it’s going to be part of a condo that may not be affordable. Our strike, with SEIU Local 73, is a response from all of us: “You know what? This city is ours, too.’

Indigo Olivier

Part of what made the 2012 strike so powerful was union leadership from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). How has the CORE strategy played out in your strike this time around? If so, how?

Mueze Bawany

I’m a member of CORE. CORE understands that teaching is a community effort, and the community comes first. We can be the home for the struggle.

We’re handicapped by laws that only allow us to legally strike over pay and benefits, but we are fighting to change the societies that have been constantly under attack by gentrification, displacement, ICE.

The educators, the families, the students are fighting. This is what we wanted. This is the society, these are the communities that we wanted to fight for. We protect each other, we defend each other, we love each other, and we believe in each other. That’s what CORE has been about.

Indigo Olivier

The vast majority of CPS students are students of color. More than three-quarters are “economically disadvantaged,” and some 18,000 student are in “temporary living situations.” What does your school and classroom look like? What are some of the issues your students are dealing with?

Mueze Bawany

I teach at Roberto Clemente. CPS has these exams every other year that sort students from each other, from a young age into the high school years: are you going to go to a selected enrollment? Are you going to go to a magnet? Are you going to go to an International Baccalaureate? Does your family get you into a charter? All these pressures that no young person should have.

Roberto Clemente is in the ninetieth percentile of students who have free and reduced lunch. Roberto Clemente has students that affected highly by trauma. We have students who are homeless, we have students who are dealing with all sorts of things that I couldn’t even imagine. The first thing you see through the door is a metal detector. The next thing you see on your left and your right are cell phone lockers. We tell them that they don’t have autonomy.

Our kids are doing their best to make it through life. They’re the world. They’re everything. As adults, we’ve got to look at each other and say, man, we’ve really failed a lot of our communities and young people.

These kids deserve all the resources. They deserve social workers, they deserve psychologists, they deserve therapy, they deserve restorative justice, they deserve better meals — they deserve everything, because they’ve had to deal with so much. But Clemente is powered by our incredibly empathetic and wonderful educators that you engage in a productive struggle with. We’re not perfect. But we collectively do our best to understand our students and fight for them.

They’re young, they make mistakes, but they come to school and they’re genuinely respectful and loving. And it’s hard because everything outside preaches that you have to be tougher than that. But they really just want someone to love them. So I just love the shit out of these kids.

Clemente is a beautiful place. It’s a been a place of a lot of resistance, and these kids embody that every day. It’s a school that deserves more resources. But I see kids every day trying to live in a city that doesn’t see them as people who can thrive.

Indigo Olivier

Let’s assume all of CTU’s demands are met in a contract after this strike. Where do you see CTU going from there?

Mueze Bawany

We’re heading in the right direction. There’s more work to be done for the common good, and there’s more work to be done in terms of a class sense, like fighting back against the income gap, and there’s more work to be done for job security, mental health facilities — going beyond school to really start healing communities.

I dream of a Chicago Public Schools that doesn’t have a network, that doesn’t have a principal, and ultimately doesn’t have CPS. It’s teacher-led, teacher-run. I think that’s where we’re heading towards. I see us continuing fighting for the social good and fighting to bring this city into the control of its citizenry. We’re going to continue fighting for social safety nets, for restorative classrooms, classrooms that espouse equity, classrooms that remove systems that continue to sort our kids.

I was thinking about what Eve Ewing said once, that she gets emotional when she’s watching TV and sees LeBron James talking about all the services he’s doing for this school [that he helped found in Ohio]. And she wasn’t getting emotional about how big an achievement that is, but over the thought that, “don’t all our kids deserve this?” I see us heading that way. I see us expanding our struggle to what’s going on in the street like anti-poverty efforts.

There are teachers who are dedicated to raising young people and dedicated to fighting for communities that demand the impossible. And communities that reimagine what Chicago could be and how we could live in a community where people matter over profit. We’re fighting for each other as if that’s the only thing that matters.