Chicago Teachers Raise the Bar

The Chicago Teachers Union has done the seemingly impossible. At a time when teachers are attacked on all sides, they led a strike that challenged every tenet of the corporate agenda for overhauling education. Photo: CTU.

The Chicago Teachers Union has done the seemingly impossible. At a time when teachers are pilloried in the press and attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike, Chicago teachers walked out for seven days in a strike that challenged every tenet of the corporate agenda for overhauling education.

Though on paper the strike was about teacher evaluations, in fact the battle was waged over conflicting visions of public education.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his corporate cronies seek to privatize public education into oblivion, creating profit-making opportunities as new charters are opened and new curricula and tests are adopted. Pushing high-stakes testing is key, as student test results supply a justification for shuttering schools as well as firing veteran teachers en masse.

CTU, on the other hand, says public schools are necessary community institutions. Class sizes should be small; students should study a rich curriculum with more art and music than standardized tests; social workers, nurses, and counselors should help students beat back the effects of poverty on their chances of academic success.

Teachers should be respected as professionals, fairly compensated, and given the supplies and the breathing room they need to do their jobs.

Teachers believed so strongly in this vision of education for all that they risked legal sanctions and financial hardship to brave further vilification.

“They’re my heroes,” said Kerry Motoviloff, president of the Madison, Wisconsin, teachers union. “Because of what they’ve done, they’ve taken control of the debate. They are saying that teachers have ideas on what real reform looks like—you are just not funding them.”

The new contract gains ground.

Teachers kept the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that will be based on student test scores to 30 percent, the legal limit after the Illinois legislature passed an anti-teacher law last year. The board had sought 45 percent. The union also earned the first-time ever right for teachers to appeal a rating.

The union forced merit pay off the table and maintained almost all the traditional salary structure, with raises for experience and advanced degrees.

Teachers made major gains on recall rights, previously nonexistent.

Seniority had existed only at the school level.

Now, if a school closes, teachers will have the right to “follow their students” if a position opens up at the school where students are sent. Laid-off teachers will have 10 months of recall if their old position is reinstated. And at least half of all new openings must now be filled with laid-off teachers.

Six hundred teachers will be hired in art, music, and phys ed.

The union won break time for nursing mothers and a $250 reimbursement when teachers buy supplies. Students are guaranteed to get their books on the first day of school.


The new deal is by no means perfect.

Teachers won a new evaluation system they think will be more objective. But despite the flaws in principals’ rankings, low-rated teachers will not have seniority protection when layoffs take place.

Laid-off teachers will now get paid for just six months, down from 12.

The contract does little to address class size—which state law forbids only Chicago teachers to bargain over—preserving toothless policies that have allowed classrooms to balloon to 40 or 50 kids despite caps of 35. Still, the status quo is a minor win given that the board wanted to gut it. A panel to monitor class size will get more funding and must now include a parent.

The board agreed to hire more social workers, counselors, and school nurses, but only if new sources of revenue are found. Emanuel is pushing for a Chicago casino to bring in tax money, which Governor Pat
Quinn has vetoed, but it likely will eventually be approved.


Teachers nationwide were elated to see someone resisting the tide of corporate-backed concessions teachers have accepted in recent years, often at the prodding of national Teachers (AFT) officials.



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The national AFT played a small role in Chicago. A senior staffer sat in on negotiations, but AFT otherwise deferred to the local, lending money and staffers to help with strike logistics.

Once the strike started, AFT President Randi Weingarten “didn’t really have much choice,” said Debby Pope, a strike coordinator.

Merit pay and evaluations based on student test scores were two national trends that Chicago teachers bucked.

Teachers in Pittsburgh took a deal in 2010 that introduced merit pay for new hires and raised the number of years to gain tenure.

When Baltimore members nixed a merit-based contract, AFT top brass swooped in to pressure members to change their votes. Weingarten touted the agreement, but earlier this year, an unprecedented majority of Baltimore teachers received unsatisfactory mid-year evaluations, in what teachers say was a deliberate attempt to avoid merit raises.

In the face of these defeats, CTU’s electrifying stand could spark resistance. Los Angeles teachers are now in negotiations over incorporating student test scores into evaluations. Union board member Joe Zeccola said, “One thing is for sure: it emboldened us in negotiations and we’re sticking to our guns more than we were.”

After a favorable court decision, Madison teachers are seeking to reopen bargaining immediately. “Boy, is the shoe on the other foot now,” Motoviloff said.


The strike didn't come out of nowhere: Chicago teachers, energized by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, have been organizing for years.

“To watch the change in the national discourse just in the course of this week, it shows what the power of, first, a small number of people in our caucus and then a large number of people in our union could accomplish,” said Xian Barrett, a history and law teacher.

They also built strong parent connections fighting school closures.

To cement relationships from school closure fights, the CTU developed a community board composed of neighborhood organizations. During the strike, these partners responded.

Albany Park Neighborhood Council organized busloads to attend a 35,000-person rally on the strike’s first day, turned out members to picket lines across the neighborhood, and held a forum on the strike

A city-wide youth project organized a protest against high-stakes testing, highlighting how standardized tests misrepresent and punish students and teachers alike.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association organized a “freedom camp” for out-of-school kids. A week of lessons on Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. capped off with parents and students demonstrating in support. Waving handmade signs, the kids performed the civil rights classic “We Shall Not Be Moved” for beaming teachers.


Ofelia Sanchez, mother of five, said she knows from her experience as a classroom volunteer that “you can’t teach a class of 40 students. It’s impossible. Students learn at their own pace.”

She said she backed the strike because she didn’t want to see her children’s teachers beg for help from parents.

Lauren Mikol, a Madison teacher, says other unions would do well to take a page from CTU’s community engagement playbook.

“They’re showing the way,” she said. “We have to do the same thing—convince everyone that public schools have to be stood up for.”

In Chicago, that fight will soon relaunch. By December the district is expected to announce 80-120 more school closures.

“We lit a fire under parents and community groups,” Cavallero said, “and with our support, they can take on that struggle to fight for their neighborhood schools. People realize that this is just the beginning.”