The Chicago Teachers Strike, by YM Intern Taoistdrunk
We’re in day 4 of the strike. Teachers, clerks, security personnel, teachers’ aides, counselors, school social workers, school nurses, clinicians and other educational support personnel have not been getting paid for the last four days. Teachers have been on corners every morning from 6:30-10:30 for the last four days, they’ve been at afternoon rallies for the last four days. Some unions have strike pay provisions — teachers don’t. Teachers are not getting paid. You’d be surprised at the things people holler biking, walking, driving by. “You’re lucky,” they say. “If I didn’t go to work I wouldn’t get paid, I’d get fired.” They say this hurrying to the L in crisp shirts holding leather briefcases. The teachers respond “Good morning, have a nice day!” because what else is there to say? What would help, what would make a difference? Nobody goes on vacation to stand on the concrete at six thirty in the morning. Nobody likes it. And nobody, nobody, likes not getting paid. You’d be surprised at how many people seem to think anybody at all is getting paid. They’re not. We’re not.
Every middle finger, every shake of the head, every thumbs down, every jeer I’ve witnessed has come from a white man in a fancy car. One exception: my colleagues told me a white woman came by one of the corners I wasn’t at to say mean things on Monday. The teachers’ union is something like 87% female and it’s majority black and Hispanic. These are just truths, probably unfairly positioned.
Speaking of the angry parent: she demanded to know why she couldn’t send her kid to school that day, and it was heartbreaking because one of the big, big reasons everybody was outside, wearing red, not getting paid, was to get more counselors, social workers, clinicians, nurses on staff so that students like this one could get what they need. The contract that the union would have had to sign in order to get everybody to school on Monday wouldn’t have served this child the way they deserve. And that parent didn’t know, and people don’t know. How heartbreaking that is, too: that so few people know.
Parents have been bringing their children in the mornings, children in strollers, children in baby bjorns, children in red shirts and red ribbons and red shoes holding signs that say they love their teachers. Their teachers love them, too. How to bring children to rallies! I mean, how. How can you explain it to them, how can you tell a child that the longer school day doesn’t necessarily mean a better school day when it gets handed down from on high, how can you tell a child about offering raises then taking them back, how can you tell a child that not everybody thinks it’s a big deal that they’re expected to listen and learn for weeks in hundred degree heat on the third floor of century old buildings, how can you tell a child that longer hours really should mean a bigger paycheck, how can you tell a child that their classmate’s homelessness or gang affiliation or parents’ divorce or chronic hunger might cause them to bomb a test and cost their teacher her job, how can you tell a child there aren’t enough libraries, nurses, counselors, social workers in their school? How can you tell a child that they’re not getting enough?
You can just tell them.
So their parents just told them, in ways that made sense to them for their children. And the parents brought them in the mornings to the small picket lines and they broght them in the afternoons for the 20,000, 30,000 person rallies. They pushed strollers to the fountain and high schoolers stood on concrete planters and held signs saying HISTORY CLASS IS IN SESSION up high.
The district set up contingency schools for parents without other daycare options. The schools were open from 8:30-12:30 at the beginning of the week, and the day now has been extended to 8:30-2:30. The kids aren’t learning anything; they’re not allowed to. Kids are in auditoriums, sitting, waiting. The schools were set up to have 100:1 child:adult ratios, and that sounded scary but it makes sense now because just yesterday, exactly one child walked into a contingency school. She walked in with her father and walked right back out. Kids don’t want to be there, it’s just that the district just wants parents crossing the picket lines. This isn’t about public safety or widespread hunger — if it was, the city would be investing in those issues under ordinary circumstances — it’s about making the teachers look bad. And it’s working! Here’s the truth: Parents are sending their kids to arts camps so they don’t have to betray teachers by crossing picket lines; parents are hiring high schoolers to babysit their younger children; parents are taking the time, figuring it out because they know about the long-term gains their children stand to make. Parents want a nurse in their schools for more than two hours a week, because what if their epileptic child has a seizure and the nurse is at a different site that day? The parents who know those are the things that are at stake know to stand by their teachers, the professionals they know and love and trust with their children every day.
On the radio they got some teachers to say that the strike may not end for another four to six weeks. I don’t know where they found those people; everyone I’ve talked to has been hoping for tomorrow and counting on Monday. Everybody’s hoping to make Saturday’s rally a celebration of the district and the union coming together for a fair contract that will improve the lives of the children we all love. Monday we’ll be back in school, everybody hopes so and everybody believes it, too. The radio! The radio has been so cruel to teachers. Most are ignoring it, they know that’s how these things go. It wouldn’t be a conflict if the media didn’t vilify somebody, and they rarely go after the people in power.
That’s the thing about union struggles when they get to this point, when it comes to a strike or even the brink of one: they’re the most dramatic display of power there is. One person, or a very small group of people, stands above tens or even hundreds of thousands and make it clear: you can’t have that. This is an exciting time to be alive, it’s an exciting thing to see. It’s epic. HISTORY CLASS IS IN SESSION.
Either you believe that workers have the right to organize or you don’t. But seeing the one, or the few, stand over the thousands and make it clear: you can’t have that, how can you see that and not understand, horribly, that the one or the few could crush any one of those thousands? Without the ability to organize each one of us is so weak. The CTU seems to understand that the whole world is watching, they seem to understand that this fight is, yes, yes, yes, about Chicago students and smaller class sizes and livable classrooms and enough desks and clinicians and books and librarians, yes it absolutely is about those things but it is also a symbol that will endure. After this, either people will believe that workers have the right to organize or they don’t. And whatever they believe, they’ll know it’s possible or that it isn’t, at least in Chicago. They’ll know that means something, something big, for the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
Protest chant: get up, get down, Chicago is a union town.