Chicago Teachers:
Fight or Go Backwards

Aug 23, 2015

Chicago’s political chiefs have thrown down a gauntlet in front of the city’s teachers. The Chicago Public Schools announced 1,491 layoffs, and threatened “even deeper cuts.” The governor of Illinois claimed that the Chicago Teachers Union is “dictatorial” and needs to have its powers reduced. Every day the newspapers make a new argument about why the teachers must make huge sacrifices.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made his intentions clear when he appointed Forest Claypool as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Claypool has no education background whatsoever. But he has a big background going after public workers, most recently when he was head of the Chicago Transit Authority and oversaw a massive attack on transit workers. He’s a hatchet-man.

Claypool came into this year’s contract negotiations aggressively, saying he wants to cut teachers’ pay by 7 percent. He says this deduction would go into teachers’ pensions. No, the fact is, this 7 percent cut in teachers’ paychecks wouldn’t improve pensions. It would go to make up for a reduction in what the school system wants to pay. It’s nothing more than a 7 percent pay cut.

Three years ago, Mayor Emanuel came out just as aggressively in contract negotiations. But Chicago teachers called his bluff, carrying out a seven day strike. Even though it might not have been the most militant strike, in this day and age when there are no strikes, the fact that teachers in a city like Chicago went out was significant.

Workers everywhere paid attention to it. And that was in the middle of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Because he was so linked to Obama, Emanuel found his hands tied. The teachers were able to end the strike on their terms, while Emanuel had to back off.

Some people afterwards said the teachers didn’t get very much from the strike. But the reality is, by fighting they kept Emanuel from taking from them what he wanted, which was much more than anyone could see at the time.

But today there’s no election campaign. And Emanuel is pushing to take what he couldn’t get in 2012.

Teachers should have no illusions that the 7 percent pay cut is the only cut that Emanuel and the city’s ruling class want. All the propaganda about a budget crisis is only a way to justify much bigger attacks. They want to destroy the union, destroy the teachers’ standard of living, destroy the pensions. They have been saying it openly. All this in order to have ever more money to hand over to the banks and big corporations.

Behind the attack on the teachers is a much broader attack on the public schools for the children of the working class. The ruling class of Chicago has already starved working class schools of resources – when they haven’t closed them. They are destroying the education of working class children, closing schools in poor neighborhoods to clear them for gentrification. Emanuel made his stance clear when he closed 50 schools two years ago, most of them in black neighborhoods.

The politicians threaten teachers that if they don’t accept big cuts, Chicago schools will become like those in New Orleans and Detroit. Schools in New Orleans and Detroit were not destroyed because teachers wouldn’t accept cuts. The politicians got away with destroying those school systems because in the aftermath of Katrina and with the Detroit bankruptcy, teachers and working class parents couldn’t find a way to organize the fight that was needed.

There is no way out of this situation without a fight. Maybe if Chicago teachers fight, they could lose, especially if they are hesitant. But if they don’t fight, it’s a sure thing they will lose.

If they fight, they could pull other public school employees, other public sector workers with them – in Chicago first of all. Because they are all coming under attack. They could all stand together.

This is exactly what is needed. A fight like that can spread to other cities, encouraging others to fight – including in New Orleans and Detroit!