On Monday morning, 26,000 teachers and school staff in Chicago walked out of school to man the picket lines. For the first time in 25 years, Chicago’s teachers have all gone on strike. The Chicago teachers are challenging the concessions which have been forced on them in the last decade, and they are challenging the privatization of the school system, which has seen children’s education turned into a profit-scheme for education companies. But most importantly the Chicago teachers are drawing a line against the type of concessions which are being forced on workers everywhere.
The strike comes after decades of attacks on teachers in Chicago. Teachers have seen cuts to their wages and benefits, as well as increasing class sizes. The latest round of attacks have been the most threatening. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has spearheaded an effort to restructure teachers pay-scale. Instead of teachers being paid for their years of work, and for their education, teachers’ pay would be tied to the test scores and performance of students. Emanuel is also demanding that the schools increase the school day by 20 percent. For this massive increase in workload teachers would receive only a two percent raise. It doesn’t take advanced math to understand that this is a huge attack on teachers’ pay.
The latest attacks are not just against teachers, but on the students. In Chicago, 80 percent of public school students qualify for free school lunches based on their parents’ income. In other words these schools serve the working class and poor population of Chicago. And the budget cuts have taken their toll on students, cutting access to materials and resources. As of this year there are 160 schools in Chicago which do not have libraries. And on top of that, the schools do not have adequate heating, which is an essential need in the Chicago winters.
But not all schools are under attack. During the last decade, the Chicago school district has seen 12 percent of its schools converted into non-union charter schools, where teachers make $20,000 less per year than at public schools.
The Chicago teachers have made it clear that this is unacceptable. But what do the politicians say? The Republicans have directed the same attacks against the Chicago teachers as they did against the workers in Wisconsin who fought to stop anti-union legislation there last spring. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has blamed the teachers, saying that their strike is a direct attack against the students. According to him, more cuts like this are needed, and that’s what we can expect if he is elected in November.
But what about the Democrats? In fact, the Democrats are the ones leading the charge against the Chicago teachers. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a Democrat, and before becoming mayor, he was Obama’s Chief of Staff. He has reacted to the strike, saying that the teachers are only hurting the students and that he will put an end to the strike as soon as possible.
What about the Obama administration? Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, used to be the CEO of Chicago’s public schools. During that time he supported budget cuts, and attacks on teachers. Duncan designed the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s key education program. Under Race to the Top, federal funding is tied to attacks on teachers, making their pay based on test-scores, and giving school districts the power to close public schools and open non-union charter schools. In other words the Democrats, including the Obama administration were the architects of the policy which Chicago teachers are resisting with their strike. No wonder Obama has hesitated to say anything about the strike.
The Chicago teachers are absolutely right to draw a line against the attacks against them. How many of us who work in other jobs, and in other parts of the country are in similar positions? The Chicago teachers have shown that there is another way to deal with the attacks that we face. The politicians have shown what they have to offer, which isn’t much. But we can draw the line ourselves against budget cuts, concessions, and attacks.