Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago Teachers Vote to Continue Strike

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates voted Sunday to reject the latest contract proposal and continue their strike, in a challenge to both the leadership of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the leadership of their own union, who had negotiated the tentative agreement.

The leadership of CTU is seen by many as a progressive, fighting leadership, willing to go toe to toe with their powerful parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), led by Randi Weingarten, as well as powerful Democratic Party leaders like Rahm Emanuel and even President Obama. Indeed, the CTU leadership challenged all of these individuals with their initial rejection of the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

Yet their most recent compromise tentative contract agreement with CPS sold their members out by permitting student test data to account for as much as 30% of teachers’ evaluations, the WSWS reported today. Any use of student test data is unacceptable, even as little as 1%, because student test data is an unreliable and inconsistent proxy for teacher ability. It can lead to false positives and false negatives, and result in good teachers getting bad reviews and possibly even laid off as a result.

The tentative agreement also gives principals considerable discretion over hiring, eviscerating recall rights for recently laid off teachers, while also slashing layoff benefits in half. (The details of agreement were released Sunday evening).

Bargaining teams and unions often justify compromises with bosses or legislators that harm former or future employees, arguing that their role is to protect the interests of their existing dues-paying members. Not only does this strategy lack compassion, it is also stupid since it undermines the union’s own power. Thousands more Chicago teachers will be laid off in the next five years under the city’s plan to shut down up to 120 schools, resulting in fewer union members. Of those who get rehired by one of the 60 new privately-run charter schools slated to open in that time, most, if not all, will lose union representation.

In an indication of just how far the CTU leadership is willing to go to end the strike and make peace with the bosses, CTU President Karen Lewis plans to force through another vote on the same tentative agreement this Tuesday, without engaging in any further negotiations with CPS. This implies that she intends to ignore the delegates’ concerns and criticisms of the tentative agreement and pressure them to vote against their members’ own interests. She is counting on mounting criticism by the press and the threat of fines and jail to coerce delegates into accepting a bad deal.

Mayor Emanuel responded to the rejection vote by threatening court action against the teachers. According to the WSWS, he said he would “not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union,” implying that both CPS and the union leadership are the only reasonable parties in the dispute, while the House of Delegates and general membership are crazy for rejecting the tentative agreement. His threat to obtain a court injunction against the teachers suggests that he has lost faith in CTU President Karen Lewis’ ability to keep her members in line.

Emanuel has called the strike illegal (teachers in Illinois can strike on wage issues, but not evaluations) and a threat to the safety of children. This latter argument is particularly cynical considering the district has done little to repair dilapidated facilities and broken air conditioning or to reduce class sizes to a safe and healthy level. He has overseen and encouraged school closures that have only exacerbated staffing and class size problems, thus jeopardizing the safety of children.

His argument that the strike is illegal is only partly true. They are striking over wages, and they happen to be unwilling to make any compromises on that issue as long as the district plays hardball on other working conditions and safety matters.

The issue of the strike’s legality has much broader significance. The ruling class can take away workers’ rights any time they think they can get away with it, as they did in Wisconsin and continue to attempt throughout the nation. Workers’ power lies entirely in their ability to withhold their labor, not in making alliances and compromises with politicians, particularly considering that the politicians are members of the ruling class and have far more in common with other wealthy members of the ruling elite than they do with workers.

Not long ago, unions had no legal standing and any strike could be declared illegal. Workers were often imprisoned, beaten or killed for participating in strikes, yet they continued to use this tactic and win improvements in working conditions. Workers today have the choice to disobey unjust laws and resist oppressive demands by their bosses or continue to see their wages and working conditions deteriorate.

Unions today, however, have a great distaste for strikes and the risks they entail. There have been very few large teacher strikes in the last few decades. The CTU strike is unique in this respect. Still, the CTU leadership has an interest in ending the strike quickly. The leaders do not want to spend time in jail or receive fines or lose their status and influence. They do not want to challenge unjust laws or corporate giveaways or the district’s “right” to shut down schools and give them away to private charter school operators, even if these undermine the union’s power in the long term. Furthermore, they do not want to burn their bridges with their allies in the Democratic Party or their parent organization, the AFT, even if that means accepting less power as a result of privatization and layoffs.

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