STRIKEWATCH: The first Chicago strikes were 'illegal...' How Chicago teachers make a strike.... The first thing it's about is no longer working on the boss's terms for the boss's offer and taking the boss's insults
Since Substance published the first installment of our new feature STRIKEWATCH in the February print edition and on line, more and more younger teachers have been asking veterans about a strike. It's time for a few "FAQs" about past Chicago strikes and what teachers and all other school workers won during those strikes.
WASN'T IT ILLEGAL FOR CHICAGO TEACHERS TO STRIKE?
YES. During the first five or six strikes, striking was illegal for Chicago teachers. But not striking was no longer an option. For more than 25 years, the school board had added insult to injury to inanity, and the majority of teachers had had enough. The first Chicago teachers' strike was against the racism of the CPS hiring system, which in those days had two tiers. Most white people with college degrees were hired and placed on tenure track. Within three years, they were "regularly certified and assigned" teachers. Most black teachers were substitutes, some kept there for decades at lower pay and with even fewer benefits.
A year before the first "official" Chicago Teachers Union strike, "Concerned FTBs" led by black substitute teachers (the long-term substitutes in those days were called FTBs, which stood for "Full Time Basis" substitutes) led a five-day strike which closed half the schools in the city, despite denunciations from the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union. At the time, teacher strikes were not legal in Illinois, but as the teachers who struck pointed out, the city didn't have enough jail cells for the 5,000 to 10,000 teachers who were on strike, and the leadership of the group, while public, was not as vulnerable.
The specific injustice that led to the FTB strike was the impositions of "standards" that discriminated against black teachers trying to get full certification to teach in Chicago. From the beginning of the various ages of discrimination against minorities in the USA, "standards" were a smokescreen behind which white supremacy lurked. The poll tax and literacy tests for voting were major examples mentioned even in bourgeois history books, and where possible they were utilized instead of terrorism to prevent black people in the states of the defeated Confederacy from voting. But elsewhere, and in the Jim Crow South, the racism would be masked behind "standards" that were imposed ruthlessly against black people, while white people would get beyond them with a wink and a nod. (It was only after the rise of the massive financial subsidies to a certain strata of black leaders — and the foundations and not-for-profits that apologized for the Nouveau White Supremacy of the last decade of the 20th Century and the 21st Century — that a racist program like "Race To The Top" could be masked behind the talking points of Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children).
Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s was more direct. In order to meet the "standards" to teach full-time, certified, and get tenure as a CPS teacher, you had to pass both a written and an oral examination. And for reasons which became clear over time, even Black people who "passed" the written exam were very very likely to "fail" the oral examination. Discussion, debate, and protest failed. Finally, a strike was necessary, and "Concerned FTBs" led it.
A complete history of "Concerned FTBs" and these struggles still needs to be written, but a few of us have told parts of the story already. (Not all of the strikers in the "Concerned FTBs" strike were black, and not all black teachers joined the strike; it was in some ways a generational thing as well...). More of that will be shared as the days grow shorter to the first major confrontation with the same racist and class biased forces in Chicago in the 21st Century, and doubtless the talking points from the other side will echo eerily, for those of us with the historical memories, back to those days of Jim Crow in the South and massive segregation in Chicago.
More about Chicago's strikes to come.