Socialist Alternative

Chicago Teachers’ Contract Not A Solution to School Crisis

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On Tuesday, October 11, Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, parents and students woke to the news that an indefinite strike, set to begin at six that morning, had been called off.  After 22 months of bargaining, during which the union and supporters had mobilized thousands of members and supporters for dozens of street actions including an April 1st one-day strike, a tentative settlement had been reached between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and CPS, a scant ten minutes before a midnight deadline.

The settlement does contain a number of gains from the previous offer rejected by the bargaining team in January, but it does not deal with the desperate crisis facing the schools. It does not, for example, rehire the hundreds of teachers who have been laid off who are desperately needed in schools with massive overcrowding

Rahm Emanuel, Mayor 1%, is a weakened figure hated by wide sections of the Chicago working class. With a bold approach and mobilizing parents, students and unionized workers, the union could still win a decisive victory. This would most likely require a tough, drawn out strike. To do this, members first need to reject the Tentative Agreement.

Teachers interviewed by Socialist Alternative have overwhelmingly opposed the strike cancellation. They believe that the union leadership settled too soon, that fundamental demands were left off the table and that based on their past record, CPS simply cannot be trusted to hold up its end of the deal. As news of the strike’s cancellation spread, teacher union activists criticized the decision on social media and online in the rank and file publication , insisting that there were no clear wins for students with disabilities, no enforceable language on class sizes in grades 3 through 12, no added clinicians, no help for Special Education and that other language on such key issues as school closures and excessive paperwork, is too weak.

One teacher interviewed by Socialist Alternative summed up the feelings of many: “At my school we couldn’t believe it. We were ready to fight. We felt like we’d been used. After the initial shock no-one really talked about it. They just went in and went back to work”.

In a previous strike in 2012, the CTU under the newly-elected reform leadership of CORE (the Caucus Of Rank and File Educators) beat back the worst of a long list of neoliberal demands made by “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel, including an uncompensated longer school day and merit-based pay. The union also won small but significant improvements for students. It was Rahm’s first major defeat since taking office.

But State lawmakers from both parties had already ringed the CTU with restrictions, for example, outlawing striking over class sizes and weakening seniority protections for veteran teachers. In the aftermath of the strike, CPS went on the offensive, and in 2013, despite a massive community fightback led by the CTU, CPS closed 49 schools, overwhelmingly in the most deprived, mainly African-American neighborhoods. Hundreds of veterans and a significant number of union activists were forced into a premature retirement, or working in charter schools or the suburbs, unable to get rehired by CPS because they are deemed “too expensive”.

(We covered these struggles here: and in other articles).

Between 2011 and the end of calendar 2015, CPS laid off over 7,000 Chicago educators. Another thousand were laid off in August 2016, and right after the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year another 250 layoffs were announced, blamed on falling enrollment which is a function of the crisis.

The surviving 600 schools are missing over 400 librarians and hundreds of art and music teachers and clinicians such as social workers, nurses, psychologists, speech and language pathologists. In a city filled with violence, there is only one crisis counselor per 95,337 students.

Instead of filling these vacancies, CPS continues to focus on teach-to-the-test regimes such as REACH and VAM that are so badly designed that for example REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students) uses 12th grade reading materials to evaluate 5th grade students.   

Class sizes range widely but there are schools with over 40 students in a classroom. Special Education is in a deep crisis, with over 600 unfilled instructor vacancies and $30 million cut during the past year alone.  At one South Side elementary school, two Special Ed teachers each handle a class of 25: one has all the Special Ed students from grades 1-4, the other has the remainder, from grades 5-8, all trying to learn separately and simultaneously.

There is a shortage of Math textbooks and the General Education teachers must work with what is available, and students are left without resources or made to share. For most of  the Special Ed students – the ones with the greatest needs – there are no Math books at all. Special Educators are left drowning in required, tedious paper work. They are left without proper support in and outside of the classroom, and receive nearly no aid from the agreement that is on offer. Special Education students and teachers alike can feel and see clearly that they do not matter to those in positions of power.

In the meantime CPS has increased funding to privately controlled charter schools. Charters are seen by many desperate parents as an alternative to the crisis-ridden public system and they continue to attract students away from CPS, despite studies showing that the quality of the education provided is on average, no better than in public schools. As CPS schools built for up to 2,000 students see enrollments falling into the low hundreds, staff wonder which school will be the next to be closed. A list of endangered schools is here.

Why Are Teachers Angry?

Teachers have told us they “cannot imagine putting in another three years under existing conditions”. The feeling is that no-one’s job is safe and that the system is set up to fail its students.

In March 2015, the union went public with a set of social justice oriented demands that were aimed at showing they were girding for a fight to preserve and extend public education in Chicago. Their demands included an elected school board, sustainable community schools, smaller class sizes, pre-k expanded to children whose family income is at or below 300 percent of the official poverty level, and a moratorium on school closures and charter school expansion.

They called on CPS to establish lower and compulsory class size limits in all schools, to ensure that every school has the necessary clinicians including a school counselor and nurse; a truant officer, restorative justice coordinator, librarian and playground instructors; and art, music, physical education and other teachers to create robust and effective educational programs and — a key demand for over-stressed teachers — to restore adequate preparation time and enforce paperwork limits for teachers.

In January 2016 after almost a year of fractured, dysfunctional bargaining – interrupted by a shocking scandal in which the CEO that the Union was trying to bargain with was arrested and found guilty of stealing $23 million from CPS.

CPS management at last made an offer substantive enough for the Union leadership to take  to their 40-member “Big Bargaining Team” for consideration. It was rejected unanimously because it would have resulted in a pay cut while at the same time failing to meet key demands in regards to the crushing workload – class sizes, testing, evaluations, and prep time.

In February and March of 2016 the union re-launched a public campaign for the “Schools Our Children Deserve,” also using the slogan “Broke on Purpose” to describe the City’s claims to have no money for education. These actions peaked in a one day strike on April 1st. After a hiatus over the summer the union resumed bargaining in September, taking a second strike vote which Socialist Alternative covered here.

The Union’s House of Delegates voted to strike on October 11, the earliest possible date after giving ten days’ legally required notice. Negotiations continued over the Columbus Day weekend. With disastrous approval numbers and Chicago being used during the Presidential elections as an example of the Democrats’ inability to govern, Mayor 1% had a strong incentive to reach a deal.

But bargaining “down to the wire,” with management doling out small concessions in ever smaller increments, is a tactic to wear down the militancy of rank and file representatives. The middle of the night is a terrible time to make a decision that thousands of workers will have to live with for years to come. It’s been widely reported that members of the BBT felt rushed and many teachers want to know: why didn’t the bargaining team continue to bargain while the strike put increased pressure on the already weakened Mayor?  

Space precludes us from publishing a line-by-line commentary on the new contract. The details of the contract, comparing it to the previous one, can be accessed here:

According to the Union’s lead attorney, the final marathon bargaining brought only a $100 million improvement, or $33 million for each of the final three years of the contract, over the offer that was made in January. CPS’s annual operating cost is $5.4 billion.

The most significant economic wins were to maintain the status-quo on pay, pension contributions and health care:

  • CPS will continue to pick up all 9% of existing employees’ pension payments, after a long, public campaign to make teachers pay 7% more from their salaries (the Board had originally agreed to pay this 7% pickup in lieu of raises in the 1980’s). New hires, beginning 1/1/17, will see these payments deducted from their salaries but will get two 3.5% raises by the end of the 2016-2017 school year to compensate for this. (New hires since 01/01/2011 are already part of a Tier II pension, which means they have to work years longer before getting a lower pension). The new change seems to be “income neutral” by the end of the first school year, but will further complicate relations between new and older employees.
  • The freeze on employees’ annual step and lane increases enacted by CPS during the 2015-2016 school year when teachers were without a contract, will not be reversed but those increases will be implemented effective 7/1/16, and the 2016-2017 increases will also be effective retroactive to that date, which means significant pay increases for employees who have not “topped out” — meaning people with less than 14 years of service — but for teachers who have reached the top of their steps and lanes, pay will remain frozen for the rest of this school year.
  • All employees will get a 2% raise in the third year of the Contract (2017-2018) and 2.5% in the fourth year.
  • Health care premiums will be frozen until 2018-19, and then they can only rise by a maximum of 0.8% of salary. But members will see significant increases in other health care costs and a reduction in the number of plans. For example copays for HMO visits to a specialist or pre-natal care provider will increase from an already high $30 to $45.

There are some other notable gains but they do not resolve any of the fundamental problems facing teachers and students at CPS. For example:

  • Laid off teachers, as long as their evaluations are not rated “Unsatisfactory”, will be offered a vacancy for which they are qualified, or else paid for 10 months. This means that a layoff would not save CPS any money in the year in which it was done, but the assault on Chicago public education is a long-term project and there are teachers laid off in 2013 who have never gone back to work.
  • The hated REACH evaluation system is somewhat modified, increasing the right to appeal and reducing observations from 4 to 3. But it remains in place along with the unacceptable design flaws mentioned above.
  • School Counselors will not have to do case management duties after the end of this school year but there is no language saying who is going to do that work, other than: “The Board and Union shall form a committee to recommend to the CEO how to implement this provision”. This clearly points in the direction of further privatization, which has already been used to massacre the jobs of janitors, school lunch workers and more recently, school nurses.
  • EARLY RETIREMENT – the contract includes the goal of getting 1500 veteran teachers to retire by the end of this school year, lured by a one time payment of $1500 per year of service.
  • The demand for Air conditioning in all classrooms was made in 2012: this contract commits the Board to have this done by the end of the academic year 2018-2019.
  • The parties agreed on a moratorium on opening more charter schools during the life of the Contract; existing charters can continue to recruit until they are up to 101% of capacity. Charter school advocates are looking to the State Charter School Commission to overturn this, so as with much else in this contract, there are legitimate doubts as to whether it can be enforced.
  • Language has been added on reducing paperwork and class sizes but it is weak. Article 44, paragraph 21 sets up a joint committee to study how to reduce time-consuming paperwork but gives Management the right to veto any changes. On class sizes, the new contract provides for help with K-2 classrooms with 32 or more students, which is already about 50% bigger than is reasonable, but the language agreed to says only that “a teacher assistant or instructor assistant will be assigned to kindergarten to second grade classrooms that have 32 or more students enrolled on 10th day. The teacher assistant or instructor assistant shall assist in core instruction and may be shared with more than one classroom.
  • For all the other grades the new language references State class size standards, making class sizes that exceed them theoretically grievable, but this untested language may be struck down by the courts. The Class Sizes Committee was set up under the 2012 contract, it has proved  ineffective and has not met in over two years. Language from the previous contract that called for the hiring of 1800 teacher assistants system-wide, has been removed entirely.
  • The language dealing with school closures does not create a moratorium. Instead it sets out a process of community engagement in the event that CPS determines to close a school due to low enrollment “where the school cannot satisfy graduation requirements for students.” This will not stop the spiral of a sabotaged system leading to falling enrollment, leading in turn to layoffs and further reductions in enrollment. 
  • The four year contract means that it will run until six months after the next Mayoral election. Rahm’s response to this was immediate, announcing on the day the strike was canceled that he will be running for a third term. His budget speech, made on the same day, included pay raises for 45 members of his immediate staff, and $40 million to pay salaries and benefits for more police, in a city that already has more police per capita than all but three others in the U.S. 
  • Funding: Before going into the final bargaining session, the Mayor’s office had hinted that CPS could get up to $88 million in TIF surplus funds. But Union allies on the City Council had already put down a bill, supported originally by a super majority of 40 aldermen, that would have handed $150 million of this Mayoral slush fund to CPS.

This bill was in itself a compromise; the existing TIF surplus stands at $460 million, of which under existing formulas CPS would get half. The bill was held up by the Mayor’s allies on the City Council but in canceling the strike, no agreement was obtained to allow it to proceed.

The Membership Decides

Eight days after the bargaining team canceled the strike, the elected HoD (House of Delegates) voted by a 2:1 margin to recommend that the general membership accept the TA.   Members who were present describe no enthusiasm for the Tentative Agreement, rather a sense that the moment for a strike had passed; also that after almost two years of bargaining, delegates were seeing that the union leadership itself believes nothing more can be gained. But there was tumultuous applause in response to a delegate who told the union leadership “I preferred it when we fought.”

As we write this, the CTU is printing copies of the full agreement and allowing members the weekend to study it before voting it up or down on Monday and Tuesday.  Several activists report that they expect their schools to vote it down by a big margin. Socialist Alternative does not agree with those who say this contract is a “sellout” but we strongly urge that the vote should be to say “No,” to reject the deal and go back, not just to the bargaining table but to drawing table, to the CTU’s original public stance calling for the schools that Chicago’s students deserve.

Defending public education in Chicago means rejecting the austerity agenda and forcing steep new taxes on the rich. Chicago is the USA’s second biggest financial center, with an almost unimaginable quadrillion dollars flowing through its two downtown futures exchanges.

but traders pay no taxes on those transactions. The towering skycrapers by the Lakefront and downtown are subsidized through TIF money stolen from the City’s schools and libraries, while working class Chicago is confronted with a billion-dollar increase in our property taxes.

It’s Time to Defeat Rahm!

The neoliberal agenda could hardly have found a more blatant and disliked messenger than Rahm Emanuel. Legally challenged before he ever ran for Mayor because he didn’t actually live here, he survives only through his connections to power. The scandal of his hand-picked CPS CEO going to prison in the midst of negotiating a union contract was just one example. He is the least popular, least trusted Mayor in modern history. A poll taken in January 2016, just before CPS was to threaten layoffs in response to the union’s rejection of the Board’s inadequate offer and in the wake of mass protests over Rahm’s cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, showed that 60% of Chicagoans trusted the union over the Mayor to resolve CPS’s problems. 70 percent disapproved of the Mayor’s handling of education, rising to 80 percent in households with a student in CPS. 

As the days ticked down to the October 11th CPS strike deadline, teachers at the 16-school UNO charter chain also took a strike vote which carried with only one “No” vote versus 531 votes in favor of strike action. This would have been the first-ever strike in a charter school in Chicago and a key issue was class sizes. There has never been a better time for the CTU to adopt a bold strategy to inflict a serious defeat on Rahm and the establishment.

But as negotiations went down to the wire, the pressure on the most unpopular Mayor in Chicago history was blunted when the union leadership talked of cooperating with him in “getting more funding from Springfield”. The Mayor, in response to this, began to shift his position to one of a kinder, gentler austerity. This posturing allowed the Mayor and the Democrats who run the City Council to shift the blame towards other, outside forces.

The teachers’ union remains the strongest single force in opposition to the neoliberal agenda of the Mayor and his allies.  It has organized massive protests on the streets to fight for the City and schools that our children deserve. But an all-out, indefinite strike, with the possibility of involving other forces, is by far the strongest weapon at its disposal. Under the law, striking is illegal when a labor contract is in force: voting “Yes” to this agreement means giving up the strike weapon until after the next Mayoral election. The strike weapon should not be set aside for the sake of a compromise that will allow the Mayor to claim that he secured peace – and run again in 2019 – while continuing to make CPS teachers and students pay for the crisis of this rotten system.

As we said on October 15:

“The bold demand to impose a financial transaction tax on the CME has been supported by the CTU, but is currently on the back burner in the Union’s efforts to secure a contract… we believe that a renewed emphasis on this massive potential source of revenue could help inspire a broader movement not only in support of the CTU and against Rahm’s attacks on public education, but also for an ambitious program to revitalize our schools, neighborhoods and services. The potential for a mass movement against Rahm and the billionaires was seen in the spontaneous uprising of the #RahmResign movement after the Laquan McDonald video was released last November.

“Other unions, both inside and outside the public sector, can be drawn into this struggle. The Chicago Transit Authority’s bus drivers, organized in the Amalgamated Transit Union are currently working without a contract, as are AFSCME’s members who work for the State of Illinois and are also considering strike action against Gov Rauner. Both unions have already declared their support for the CTU’s just demands and stood with educators on the April 1st political strike. If these key unions work together we could win the La Salle Street Tax and find the billions that Chicago and Illinois need to fund vital public services as well as decent pay, pensions and healthcare for public employees. The CTU has shown that it is the union most capable of leading this movement. We hope that in the coming days and weeks, we can work together to fight for a city that works for all of us, not just the billionaires.”

Securing the future of the city’s schools will require a broad-based independent mobilization of community groups and unions fighting for racial and economic justice, relying not on the Democratic Party and lobbyists to pass legislation, but on the unions and community to win our demands. The Tentative Agreement does not do this, and should be rejected.

Steve Edwards is a retired AFSCME local President and Statewide grievance committee member who served on his union’s State of Illinois bargaining team through 4 contracts.

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