'A historic beginning in the battle for the soul of public education...' Huge crowds rally and march unions and public schools in Chicago. 'Mayor One Percent' tries a publicity stunt Sox Park, while mayor's puppet school board runs away in the face of democracy
By the time Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis rose and took the microphone in front of more than 4,000 of her union's 30,000 members at Chicago's iconic Auditorium Theater on May 23, 2012, the teachers from all over the schools of the third largest public school system in the USA had been meeting, cheering, and chanting for more than two hours. Most wearing red tee shirts emblazoned with "Chicago Teachers Union," the teachers and other school workers had come from across the city after working all day with the children of Chicago. It was after six p.m., and police outside had begun warning union officials that the arrangements for a march through the Loop was in jeopardy, because the people inside were still there instead of exiting, as scheduled, at six p.m.
It was only about fifteen minutes after 6:00, and the event, scheduled as tightly as the musicals that have often graced the same stage, was running late only because of the enthusiasm of the crowds had been growing to a fever pitch. Small delays are always a part of big events, and this, everyone there realized, was an event of historic proportions for Chicago (and probably for the nation's public schools).
As Karen Lewis wrapped up her brief speech, the chants of "Strike! Strike!" and "Fight! Fight!" may have been heard as far away as Sox Park. There, at the home of the Chicago White Sox Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police chief were attending a baseball game following the NATO summit. Critics of the mayor speculated that he was suddenly a White Sox fan in order to try and get some additional adulation and his usual cheap publicity following a year of the most intense teacher bashing in Chicago history. Had Sox Park been filled with union teachers, as the baseball field was, Emanuel would have been booed as ferociously as any opposing pitcher who pitched inside to a Sox batter. But Emanuel was safely miles away from the teachers he had spent a year bashing and the unions he had spent the year trying to discredit to the public and break in reality.
All of which had been outlined in the speeches of Karen Lewis and the more than 20 speakers who had led into her wrap up speech. The union president's brief remarks summed up one year of life for public school teachers union the city's new mayor, who had before returning to Chicago served as Chief of Staff at the White House to President Barack Obama. Emanuel, who had just completed a star turn for supposedly saving the city during the NATO summit, had announced earlier in the day that he and his police chief would be watching a White Sox game, a move that many observers believed was an attempt to continue drawing plaudits from crowds and to head off some of the coverage in the city's media of what the teachers were doing and what the teachers' union was planning.
The main content of the speech by the CTU president was a brief summary of the insults heaped on the teachers by the city's mayor and his appointed school board and school chief during the 12 months since Emanuel's inauguration in May 2012. Included in the speech were a couple of stand up riffs that were among the many things that had made Lewis more and more popular with union members across Chicago, despite a few right wing attacks. "In June, he stole the contractual raises from all of us," Lewis began in her summary. She went on to list, month by month, how the supposedly "Democratic" party mayor had engaged in union busting, teacher bashing, and an unprecedented attack on public schools throughout the year. In September, Emanuel tried to impose the so-called "Longer School Day" on all of the city's real public schools (at the present time in history, Chicago has about 600 real public schools and more than 100 charter schools and so-called "campuses") despite the fact that he had no plan regarding what to do with the extra time, and the fact that his claims about Chicago having the "shortest school day" in the USA was proved false.
Despite the fact that every claim Emanuel made in his escalating media based and carefully scripted attacks on public school teachers and public schools was proved to be a lie, the city's mayor continued, month after month, to tout privatization and denigrate real public education and the people who work in real public schools. Emanuel's actions had slowly brought the city's largest group of unionized public servants to the boiling point, despite every cheap publicity stunt the mayor and his huge public relations crews could conjure.
Nearly two hours before Lewis stood up to speak, the first of more than a dozen speakers rose and told a heart-rending story about how the lives of students and children were destroyed by the policies of corporate America in Chicago. Akilia Griffen, a student from Dyett High School on Chicago's South Side, told the crowd, which by that time had filled the auditorium, through the upper boxes and balcony, the specifics of how those who rule and own Chicago had systematically taken away her right to a decent public high school education while she and her fellow students joined in protest against the public plan to close her school.
Nearly an hour before Ms. Griffen spoke to the crowd, the doors had opened and hundreds, then thousands, had taken their seats. By four o'clock, they were viewing a dramatic history of the Chicago Teachers Union on the giant overhead screen, followed by shorter video clips emphasizing different aspects of the struggle. At first, some reporters were speculating loudly that the CTU wouldn't fill up the entire cavernous theater, but by the time the student spoke about one of the hundreds of hypocrisies and betrayals during the first 12 months of Rahm Emanuel's administration, there was not an empty seat in the place, and hundreds of people were arriving outside to be told to wait across the street for the march scheduled to take place later.
Following Akila Griffen's poignant narrative, Kristine Mayle stood at the podium. She talked about how she had gone into teaching knowing that her work would not be easy, and how proud she was of it. Ms. Mayle, who was one of the founders of CORE (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators) had become the union's financial secretary after becoming an activist following her anger over the closing of her own school, Da La Cruz Middle School, as part of former Mayor Richard M. Daley's "Renaissance 2010" program of privatization, union busting, and charter promotion. A complete copy of Ms. Mayle's May 23 speech is available elsewhere on this Home Page. The MC then introduced two members of the CTU "bargaining team" — Zulma Ortiz (a teacher from Kennedy High School) and Gloria Higgins (a PSRP from Hearst Elementary School). As part of the reorganization of the union after she and her team won the June 2010 CTU runoff election, Karen Lewis made sure that the union was not only represented at the bargaining table by the officers and union attorneys, but that a broader "bargaining team" was also present to keep the voice of the rank-and-file present and to provide the union's leadership with feedback on the spot. The bargaining team, approximately 40 members strong, had been present at every CTU - CPS collective bargaining session beginning in August 2010, despite recent corporate media claims that the bargaining had only recently become serious.
Ortiz, a high school vice president and member of the union's executive board, told the crowd how the negotiations were conducted, with the bargaining team sitting with the officers and the union's lawyers while the legal issues were being discussed. Union officials have pointed out repeatedly that the Board's proposals to date have included the complete gutting of the existing union contract and the destruction of the few remaining provisions that protect things like class size. Many of the parents who are supporting the union are still surprised to learn that the official Board of Education position is that it must have the absolute right to set whatever class size it wants.
Gloria Higgins reminded the crowd that the PSRPs carry on many of the most important jobs in the schools, supporting the teachers, and often coming more closely from the communities that the schools serve. Higgins, who works at the Hearst Elementary School on the city's southwest side, has seen the school's community changed radically by the changes in public housing, while the Board of Education has taken away public school space to promote charter schools in the area.
One of the things noted by the union leaders for more than a year, was that the actual executives of the Chicago Public Schools were not completely represented at the bargaining table. The two main people at the table for CPS have been Tim Cawley, a new administrator (appointed in June 2011 by Jean-Claude Brizard to be "Chief Administrative Officer") and Rachel Resnick (a veteran of more than 40 years in CPS who rose through the ranks from teacher to principal to become one of the last experienced CPS people at the central office). The CPS "Chief Executive Officer", Jean-Claude Brizard, has never taken the time to be at the table with the union's leadership, a fact noted by everyone who has observed the bargaining. Brizard's absence hasn't been explained, since part of the reason why the Board of Education agreed to an unprecedented salary (of $250,000 per year) and unprecedented "relocation expenses" (of $30,000) was that he was supposedly the kind of experienced educator and executive who could and would take on the challenges of negotiating the union contracts for the nation's third largest public school system.
The brief speeches were interspersed with videos about the CTU, its history, and supporters, often with musical background. The songs and music of liberation ranged from union songs like "Solidarity Forever" to the Civil War song "Battle Cry of Freedom." The entire event was a living lesson in the continuity of history from the liberation of slaves from the 19th Century's plutocracy through the Civil War to the struggles for decent public schools led by the city's public school teachers during the 1960's, 1970s, and 1980s.
After Gloria Higgins spoke, one of the active parents in the current struggle, Becky Malone, spoke briefly to the crowd about how her group from the city's 19th Ward had begun organizing when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he was imposing the "Longer School Day" on all of the city's schools without regard to the wishes of parents and children or the professional work of the people inside the school buildings. The opposition to Emanuel's "Longer School Day" propaganda and proposal (now a policy of the Chicago Board of Education) has been growing both among the teachers and among parents as the details of the shallow view of public education held by the mayor become more and more clear and the cliches of the mayor's appointed school board members and executives become more and more turgid in the public debates.
But while Brizard has engaged in an almost unlimited number of carefully controlled media events during his year in power in Chicago, the Board has spent more than $1 million on outside lawyers to be at the bargaining table instead of Brizard and most of his team. Between June 2011 and April 2012, the Chicago Board of Education voted to pay the law firm of Franczek Radelet more than $1 million to represent CPS. There has been no discussion or debate about this unusual arrangement, and for all of their discussions of the need for "efficiency", not one of the seven Board members has questioned their decision to have an outside lawyer getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars while the Board itself has a Law Department that had more than 40 lawyers (the number varies month to month) and a total of more than 75 people working in it. (Readers who want to visit the Law Department, which is paid for by the taxpayers, can go to the seventh floor of the CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St., although the Board generally calls security when anyone asks to actually do a walkabout in an office such as that of the Law Department.)
Parents and other supporters of public education spoke as well. Becky Malone, who had been organizing against the absurdities of the mayor's Longer School Day in the Mount Greenwood and Beverly communities of the south side, told the teachers sea of red that she was honored to be speaking with them in front of the 4,000, and that she and her neighbors were going to continue the struggle for a sane school day and to ensure that every person asked to work longer hours was paid for that work.
Malone's comments were followed by a powerful performance by parent, LSC member, rock band member, and journalist Matt Farmer. Farmer was on the program officially as a "Journalist on public education," which he has been since he began writing for Huffington Post during the months after he and his fellow parents tried unsuccessfully to protest to eviction of the Edison Regional Gifted Center from Edison Elementary School on the city's far northwest side and its placement into Northwest Middle School, on one of the most overcrowded public school blocks in the USA (three schools in one block in Albany Park).
Farmer took the microphone in his hand and strode across the stage. He recounted to the crowd how a year earlier, Penny Pritzker, the billionaire Board member just appointed by Rahm Emanuel, had been interviewed by WBEZ radio and refused to answer questions about where her own children attended public schools. Priztker, like Mayor Emanuel, had her children at the University of Chicago lab school, one of the most expensive private schools in the USA.
In cross examination fashion, Farmer showed the hypocrisy of Pritzker, the mayor, and the other six Board members on many of the questions that had been debated over the previous 12 months. Farmer brought many in the crowd to their feet — laughing in some case, angry in others — when he asked about things like class size at the Lab School (fewer than 20 in a class) and a full and rich curriculum (seven art and music teachers). Farmer wrapped up with a quote from the principal of the expensive school where the Pritzker and Emanuel children get their education: "I shudder to think," the Lab School principal had written, "what teaching would be like without teacher unions." The crowd roared as the hypocrisy of the union-busting agendas of the Pritzker and Emanuel families were stripped bare for everyone to see. One of Matt Farmer's more recent contributions to the Huffington Post ("Teachers don't like bullies...") appeared on May 10 and was put up here at substancenews.net on May 11 (the URL for those who want to read it again is: http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3249§ion=Article)
Displaced teachers Rodney Pruitt and Lourdes Guerero then took the podium. Guerrero had spoken the previous day at a CTU press conference about the injustices done to veteran teachers by CPS during the layoffs and school closings of the previous two years. But on May 23, Rodney Pruitt was the teacher who spoke. His anger was barely controlled as he spoke about how veteran teachers were cast aside by CPS officials on any pretext, and how the union did not have the contractual power to win back the jobs of men like himself and women like Lourdes Guerrero.
For two years in a row, CPS has tried to eliminate as many veteran teachers as possible during the summer. In 2010, just as Karen Lewis and her team arrived at the Chicago Teachers Union, CPS cut 1,300 teachers, with then Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman claiming, at first, that they had been "bad teachers." When Huberman's lie was exposed, he simply went forward with the cuts, while the Board spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending against a lawsuit filed by the union. During the summer of 2011, the newly installed CEO Jean-Claude Brizard used the lie of a "fiscal emergency" to break the unions' contracts (and deny all unionized workers a four percent raise) while also displacing hundreds of teachers.
With ten "turnarounds" and seven other closings looming in June 2012, Brizard will be continuing the process begun by his predecessors (and the previous mayor). From October through May, the CTU and community allies have been protesting against the claims by Brizard, the Board, and the mayor that the schools targeted for turnaround this year were "failing," challenging the claim by pointing out, with growing national and local support, that it is the failure of Chicago's ruling class to eliminate vicious poverty and segregation that is the primary cause for the children in these schools to have lower test scores. Nevertheless, as the 2011 - 2012 school year ends, the Emanuel administration will be destroying the careers of an estimated 1,000 additional teachers behind a propaganda smokescreen of doing what is best for the children.
During the musical scores that were part of the presentations, the crowd became more and more enlivened. One of the main political supporters of unions, 36th Ward Alderman Nick Sposato, moved across the front of the stage urging the crowd and the drama increased. Sposato, a union firefighter now on leave to serve in the Chicago City Council, was clearly having a very good time.
The man who spoke for the city's political leaders was one of the staunchest supporters of union's in the 50-member Chicago City Council, alderman Bob Fioretti. Despite the power and enormous financial backing of Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and threats from Emanuel to any alderman who supports the teachers or opposes his corporate school reform and privatization plans — several members of the Chicago City Council stood with the teachers at the May 23, 2012, rally inside the Auditorium Theater.
To growing cheers, Alderman Fioretti condemned the mayor's policy of closings and turnaround of schools, and told the crowd that his Second Ward had more schools than any other in town. Recounting the struggle to stop the closing of Crane High School, he said the city had to have stability in its schools, and he joined the union demand that the Board of Education and the mayor stop ordering the destruction of real public schools. "The school is the community," Fioretti said, "destroy the school and you destroy the community itself.... We have to defend our schools. Without them we have no neighborhoods..."
Standing on stage a few feet from Karen Lewis were alderman Toni Foulkes, Scott Waugespack, and Nick Sposato. All were standing strong with the teachers knowing that they would, once again, face the nasty wrath of Emanuel's attempts to bully, bribe and berate the city's aldermen into submission to his policies.
Trying to keep to the tight schedule but maintain the program, the union leaders moved into a musical presentation from union members and their supporters. Many of the teachers in the huge auditorium got a different view of Crystal Williams, who is usually leading organizing in a large part of the city, when she joined with Michelle Gunderson and others leading the crowd in song. After the singing, another brief video brought support greetings from the leaders of the unions that represent other groups of workers in Chicago's public schools.
The video of labor leaders was followed by greetings from two of the most important leaders of teacher unions in the USA, Dan Montgomery of the 110,000-member Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and Randi Weingarten of the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Both promised the support of organized labor and the teachers of Illinois and the nation in the battles that are to come.
Adding his support to the CTU and Karen Lewis, whom he praised personally, was the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. of Chicago's Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Then it was time for the thousands to hear from CTU President Karen Lewis before pouring on to the streets of Chicago.
"Strike! Strike!" the thousands chanted as they poured out of the Auditorium Theater on to Congress Parkway, which had been closed by the police to traffic. A block away, the crowd from inside the theater joined with a group that had been as large as 2,000 people which had been forced to wait outside for more than two hours because there had been no room in the structure.
Dozens of yellow school buses that had brought the teachers and other school workers from hundreds of schools across the vast city lined up along Wabash Ave. waiting to take those who had worked a full day with some of the most impoverished and challenged children in the Western World home. And all knew that they would be back in their classrooms and at their other duties by morning the next day, to read, as usual, the biased reports and attempted spin from the mayor who has declared war on his largest group of public workers as much as the despised Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, had been doing during the same time and working from the same scripts.
Earlier in the day, Rahm Emanuel's hand-picked puppets at the Chicago Board of Education had held their monthly meeting. A petulant Board President David Vitale yawned and told people speaking against the Board's policies that he was getting tired of people repeating themselves. Vitale, who has restructured the Board meetings to prevent the public participation from even beginning before noon, has been complaining about democracy in Chicago since he was appointed by Emanuel in May 2011 and took office in June 2011. Vitale's first act as Board President was to vote in favor of the lie that the new administration had just reported, the claim that in June 2011 the Board had a "fiscal emergency" and therefore didn't have the $100 million to pay the promised (and contractual) four percent raises owed to the more than 34,000 unionized workers in the city's vast public school system.
But by the time the marchers reached the location of the Board's headquarters at nearly 7:00 p.m. on May 23, Vitale and his people had gotten out of downtown.
One block west of the Board of Education, the massive march turned south to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, along LaSalle St. at the south end of the Loop, Chicago's Wall Street. There another rally was held before the teachers — and thousands of supporters — went home for the night. For most of the teachers, it was more than 12 hours after their workday had begun, but few showed signs of fatigue. Joy and determination were on most faces.
The day after the huge march and rally, CTU President Karen Lewis sent out an email message to the union's members. It's worth closing this story with her words:
Dear [CTU member],
Yesterday [May 23, 2012] was one of the proudest days of my life. As I gazed upon a sea of red, our union members’ unity and determination inspired me both in the Auditorium Theatre and on the streets of our city. I hope you were one of the thousands of CTU members who took part in yesterday’s show of strength and that you took that sense of power back to your school today to share it with those who could not join us.
Many members share responsibility for yesterday’s accomplishment through their hard work and dedication to our union. Another group of people also bears responsibility for educators’ determination to fight, but they should not feel any pride in that role.
The Chicago Board of Education and CEO Brizard have made a series of unjust and degrading decisions over the past year, about which our members consistently express to me their outrage. From canceling our raises, to jacking up our workload, to injecting student test scores into our proposed evaluation and pay formulas, to closing and privatizing our schools, it is no wonder Chicago’s teachers, clinicians, and PSRPs are determined to fight. The Board’s contract proposals simply add insult to injury.
We know that we’ll need unity to win our just due and to fight for the Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. We’ll also need to be active on all fronts. Right now, legislators need to hear from you about HB4277, which would divert neighborhood school resources to charters. Click here to read more and call your representative.
Yesterday was the beginning of a historic struggle for the soul of public education. We have proven we are up to the challenge that faces us. Now we must each do our part to meet that challenge.
Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT