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A victory for the union–and for the children

By Will Parry

Chicago’s 29,000 union teachers and support staff returned to the classroom September 19, having wrung critical concessions from a bitterly anti-union administration in a solid seven-day strike that heartened labor across the U.S., even as it focused national attention on struggling urban schools.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis termed the strike “absolutely” a victory for the city’s 350,000 schoolchildren as well as its teachers.

The victory was not complete. Strike settlements rarely are. But the teachers won a pay raise averaging 17.6 percent over four years, while frustrating the merit pay demand of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The settlement also protects seniority pay increases and holds the line on health insurance costs.

The agreement limits the role of standardized test scores in evaluating teacher performance. It gives laid-off teachers better rehire opportunities and gives all teachers new protections against intimidation by supervisors. During the term of the agreement, an additional 600 art, music and physical education teachers will be hired.

The union gave ground on the length of the school day and school year, extended at Emanuel’s insistence.

The settlement was the fruit of the union’s democratic policy of outreach and involvement, a policy reflected in the 800-member bargaining team, representing teachers, paraprofessionals, clinicians and support staff from every Chicago school.

The union’s approach was also expressed in its active work with parents and others in the community to prevent school closures, a burning issue especially in heavily minority communities.

The city’s teachers work in schools where four of every five students are minorities as well as low income. Eighty percent of these students qualify for free lunches. Many come from neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. Yet funding for anti-violence efforts, as well as basic social services, has been cut back because of the city’s financial crisis.

In this environment, Emanuel sought to judge teacher performance by standardized test scores. The union fought this approach, arguing that external factors – poverty, violence, homelessness – directly affect student performance.

When the contract was presented, the bargaining team delayed the vote for two days so that every clause could be scrutinized.

“As we went through the contract, basically article by article,” Lewis said, “one of the things that got the absolute most applause of the night was lesson plans, that teachers could do their own lesson plans…

“It’s things like (the imposition of lesson plans from above) that are making our lives absolutely insane,” Lewis said. “We’ve been micromanaged into doing things that we know are harmful for children.”

The union’s ranks held firm throughout. When the Illinois legislature pushed through a bill requiring a 75 percent vote to authorize a strike, the union got a 90 percent vote.

Underlying the solidarity of the membership’s support for the strike was a subterranean seething at the administration’s unfairness and blindness to the reality that teachers face day after day in the classroom.

Given this rank and file unrest, a week of picketing, meetings and downtown rallies and marches was a bracing lungful of democracy. The courage of Chicago’s union teachers has added a proud new chapter to the struggles of organized labor for a better world.

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