Teachers in Chicago returned to school on Wednesday after nine days out on strike.
They won overwhelming support from people in the city—and defeated major planks of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “reform” programme for schools.
Kirstin Roberts is was a “picket captain” at her school. She spoke to Socialist Worker about what teachers won.
This was a prize fight for Rahm Emanuel. Like a man obsessed, he has staked his career on his ability to smash teaching unions. But we have been able to defeat major attacks that teachers in other cities haven’t.
It wasn’t just a strike, it was a social movement. We picketed every morning and had major mobilisations in different parts of Chicago every afternoon. Some had as many as 40,000 people on them.
They said that if teachers went on strike it would turn people against them. But the union turned to the working class and the poor people of Chicago and said we were fighting for education. We got overwhelming support. Every day we had parents turning up to the picket line with home made food. It was something incredible to see.
It was the first time I’ve been on strike, and that’s been the case for most of our members. And it’s been built in such a bottom up way.
For several years we’ve been getting the union to discuss the attacks in every school building. We started wearing red T-shirts, and by the time of the strike everyone was wearing them—the whole city was just a sea of red.
Our contract will come up for renegotiation in three years, when Emanuel is campaigning for re-election. We know that he will attack again, that this has just been the first round. But the most important thing we’ve won is the ability to fight stronger for the next round of attacks.
There are many things we preserved or gained that are important to both teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions. For example, we now have a guarantee that all curriculum materials will be available in every class from the first day.
This sounds like a small thing, but the conditions in Chicago’s schools have been so dire that there can often be a lack of basic materials such as books, as well as overcrowded classes.
One important victory was that we were able to keep “merit pay” off the table. That’s the threat of bringing in performance related pay for teachers related to students’ test results. It’s been looming over us, and teachers in the past haven’t been able to stop it.
Merit pay is a centrepiece of the corporate drive to smash our union. It means teachers being set in competition with each other even within the same school. It means teachers getting penalised for teaching the students who are less likely to get good results. This particularly affects students from poorer families and ethnic minorities.
The other key victory was that we preserved the “steps and lanes” system that means teachers are paid more for the number of years they’ve worked. Taking this away in other cities has been used to drive down pay for everyone—and to drive teachers away more quickly.
Teaching is a hard job and it already has a really high turnover. In Chicago only half of us make it through our fifth year. The pay attack would have made this even worse. It seems like the corporate agenda is to make teaching not a career but something you do for a few years and then leave, on wages that are very low.
There are more fights to come. The administration plans to close between 80 and 120 of Chicago’s 600 public schools. Most of these will be replaced by “charter schools” run by private companies. That has been the sharp edge of the attack on teaching unions.
We didn’t win everything. But we’re in a much better position to fight the closures and the battles ahead thanks to the unity and the confidence we won in this strike. We would never have been able to do this if we hadn’t gone on strike. That’s why the vast majority of people think this strike was a win.
Kirstin Roberts spoke to Socialist Worker’s Dave Sewell