Chicago Teachers Union Strike: Teachers Are Fighting for the Future, Not Living in the Past

On Tuesday, 30,000 people took to Chicago’s streets in support of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. I admit, it was a beautiful site filled with solidarity and power. As I browsed through some pictures, I unconsciously put my fist in the air. With one of Chicago’s most violent summers behind it, this strike is about a lot more than pay and working hours. It’s about making sure resources are retained for quality public education. Currently, right-wing idealogues are making several harmful and illogical arguments in an effort to demonize teachers who further their own agenda; however, the Chicago Teacher’s Union could be using this strike to fight for a lot harder for struggling families unacquainted with the labor movement.

I want to address the arguments from those calling the union greedy and selfish. It’s a very easy remark to make in a voiceless position. We all want to get paid what we believe we deserve. As college students, did we not want more financial aid? As young workers, don’t we think we should get paid more? The real difference between these critics and the unions is collective bargaining. No matter where you go, teachers never make enough. Frankly, from what I have seen firsthand, I do not think they can ever be fully compensated for the hours, loss of sleep, and stress upon them during the school year. The weak arguments against this are below us, and we must avoid them before we lose sight of the end goalt: An education system that delivers results for our students and provides quality instruction.

Another attack on the teachers is repeatedly stating the number of students who will be left on the streets because of the strike. Underlying this statement is the prediction that violence in Chicago will rise. Before critics quip that teachers will be responsible for continued violence, we should ask ourselves: were public schools open during the summer? No.

For those libertarians who say that we should treat our public education system like a “market commodity,” my response to you is this: Where are your entrepreneurial instincts? Our country’s best businesses are developed by those who are given the freedom to explore and learn at their own pace. Creativity requires breathing room. There is no one size fits all solution, but there are skills all students should learn at high levels: reading, writing, numerical analysis, and critical thinking. This is what you do, so show you can do it well. A quality public education is not a market commodity; it's a right.

Conservatives cannot use the business model of producer and consumer and only apply it to the teachers. They have to apply it to the students. And if they apply it to the students, the model says only those who can afford a quality education will get it. Is this what we really want to be saying?

Attacking public schools for a lack of accountability because there are unions is just wrong. First of all, unions are often the front-line in preventing waste and ensuring tax revenue is allocated properly. Secondly, principals and school superintendents are not covered by union contracts.

To say teachers are against extended school days is wrong. They are against working 20% longer with only a 2% increase in pay.

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, recently tweeted: “Sad to think abt impact of the Chicago teacher strike: 400k students not learning today & families w/o childcare resources in the lurch.” I agree, it’s sad to think my little cousins will be stuck at home watching cartoons, eating junk food, and playing video games when they should be learning to read and write. Parents are struggling to find day-time activities for their kids, and will become increasingly frustrated with both sides. The more Chicago’s children do not learn, the more they fall behind. Classroom management takes more than a month before teachers can truly begin to efficiently teach.

This is the plain truth, and it hurts.

I do have my doubts as to whether the Chicago Teacher’s Union is headed in the right direction. The question ahead is whether the Union will fight for the status quo or acknowledge that there is real need for education reform. It’s a critical position that needs to be stated early on and maintained throughout.

If you do not acknowledge the need for America’s students to compete globally, you will be characterized as bullies who hinder progress. Working class parents want their children to make it farther than they did, and they will be attracted to Mayor Emmanuel’s arguments.

If the teachersare really committed to tying their movement to improving Chicago schools, I believe they should fight for longer school-years and school days. The city of Chicago should also pay the teachers for the increased time.

Chicago’s teachers can re-frame the situation: Parents are not just concerned about their child’s education. They are upset Chicago is losing critical revenue from its toll meters to a Qatar sovereign wealth fund. They are upset the Chicago Skyway was privatized, yet there is still no budgetary or traffic congestion relief. They are upset they pushed President Obama’s TARP plan, but saw no jobs come to many parts of the city. Together, if addressed, these are the issues that can improve quality of life.

The labor movement isn’t about just membership; it’s about all working people.

By winning smaller classrooms and cooler schools, teachers will be able to retain more of their students and be more able to closely track their students progress. By having a larger say in testing procedures, teachers will make sure a student’s education is tailored to their learning style, not a foreign standard.

The teachers union needs to be willing to negotiate on merit-based pay. There is no reason it has to be one way or the other. A fusion of seniority based and merit-based pay increases will make sure young teachers excelling in the classroom are retained, and that experienced elder teachers who know how to manage a classroom can continue to afford to teach.

Teachers unions also shouldn’t be completely against voucher systems. Instead, they should fight to limit vouchers in areas that are showing strong results in public schools. Yes, it is a threat to privatization. But they work for many students who learn better in a private school environment. We have to think about school through the eyes of the parent who never experienced a union, nor had any labor movement experience. As years go on, less and less people will value workers’ compensation the way we do. In Washington, D.C., vouchers have provided a meaningful alternative to non-performing schools.

As a progressive, I fully expected Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to be bad for labor. In the era of Citizens United, his election was symbolic of labor’s dwindling political influence. With $12 million funneling into his campaign from education reform organizations, we should not be surprised that we are here.

The real question the city’s movement needs to ask itself is, are we we addressing the issues of not just ourselves, but our neighbors as well?

I applaud the Chicago Teachers Union for taking a stand for the city to set its priorities straight. I just hope the union can take the higher road and lead us to a real people-powered victory.